Firms Hire Consultants to Handle Needy Workers

Companies are hiring consultants to help manage the "over-praised" Me Generation. The result? Kudos for showing up to work on time! Awards for getting a report in! Forget Employee of the Month — how about Employee of the Day! Some managers are resistant, saying the only praise they ever got was a paycheck.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

On Wednesdays we talk about the workplace.

This week, we're going to look at a new challenge for bosses - their youngest employees, the 18 to 25-year-olds. The new workforce is especially demanding and needy. It's enough of a problem for bosses to be the topic of a cover story of Fortune magazine.

Some companies are even going so far as to hire consultants to teach their managers how to praise young workers, like reporter Chana Joffe-Walt.

CHANA JOFFE-WALT: Millennials, Gen Y, whoever we are, we have arrived. We're filling your cubicles. We're hanging at the Xerox machine and we want to be noticed. Jean Twenge is a psychology professor at the University of California, San Diego and author of "Generation Me." She says travel across the country to all sorts of workplaces and...

Professor JEAN TWENGE (University of California, San Diego): Well, you will probably see a generation of people who really want praise and may have a hard time dealing with criticism because that's what they got used to their whole childhood.

JOFFE-WALT: A childhood of self-esteem. Our parents really wanted us to have it and we're terrified we wouldn't. So every kid on the soccer team got a trophy. Our grades were inflated, our teachers threw out their red pens, and now we are moving all our very special selves into your office.

What's a manager to do?

Mr. ERIC CHESTER (Founder and President, Generation Why): Must have employee recognition programs.

JOFFE-WALT: Eric Chester's advice: Keep the praise coming. He's with Generation Why, a training and consulting company. Recently, his phone's been ringing off the hook with calls from managers asking what is with these kids? How do I keep them here and happy? Chester says the expectations of Gen Y-ers for constant praise are not going to change.

Mr. CHESTER: That means you have to create systems that recognize and reward accomplishment. It doesn't necessarily mean outstanding behavior.

JOFFE-WALT: More like the accomplishment of being a good and loyal employee. Forget employee of the month; how about employee of the day? In Providence, Rhode Island, the Gilbane Building Company does it with special awards ceremonies almost every morning.

Unidentified Woman: I am here to present a value and action award for teamwork, dedication to excellence and loyalty to Barbara Gorman.

(Soundbite of applause)

JOFFE-WALT: Last year in a survey of the company's 2,000 employees, the younger staff at Gilbane said they weren't getting enough positive feedback. So a Generation Why consultant was hired and the awards program was born. This morning the focus is on Barbara Gorman in marketing. She is middle-aged with short white hair and is completely taken aback.

Ms. BARBARA GORMAN (Gilbane Building Company): And I didn't think I did anything extraordinary at all. It's just what I would do, and I certainly did not expect that.

JOFFE-WALT: Barbara's been with Gilbane for 17 years and never received an award like this. She said she just did what she's always done, her job. The hoopla isn't really necessary.

But her 29-year-old co-worker, Jessie Pohemas(ph), feels very different. He says he'd never stay with a company that didn't offer regular recognition to its employees.

Mr. JESSIE POHEMAS (Gilbane Building Company): It's something that needs to be visible. You know, it should be part of daily life. It may only be 10 minutes but the results are a lot more than that, absolutely.

JOFFE-WALT: The results may be positive, but all this recognition can be a hard pill to swallow for many managers.

Cristina O'Holloran(ph) is an interior designer in San Diego. She says when she was in her 20s, she practically had to pay someone to let her work for them. Now at 46, she's finally the boss.

But her time is taken up patting employees' backs for meeting deadlines and giving champagne toasts at morning meetings, all to keep the 20-somethings in her office happy.

Ms. CRISTINA O'HOLLORAN (Interior Designer, San Diego): If they're not happy, it's like a cancer in the office and it just spreads. It happens very fast. You can feel it in the attitude. It's like with kids. It's very obvious that we're taking over where the parents left off.

JOFFE-WALT: O'Holloran says she bends over backwards to keep everyone feeling like they are a unique snowflake. But really, she says, not every young person is special. Wait, except me, right? I'm special, right? Ah, I know just who to call. Mom?

Ms. CHIMEY SAKYA (Mother of Chana Joffe-Walt): Mm-hmm?

JOFFE-WALT: Do you think I am special?

Ms. SAKYA: I think you have pretty wonderful talents and skills that make you special.

JOFFE-WALT: Well, thanks, mom.

Ms. SAKYA: That's it?

JOFFE-WALT: That's it. Almost enough encouragement to last me the whole day.

For NPR News, I'm Chana Joffe-Walt, in Seattle.

INSKEEP: Oh, what a wonderful report, Chana. I'm so proud of you.

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