Engaging Generation Z - Your Summer Interns

Intern recognition helps build the engaged workforce of the future. (Photo via University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy, Flickr)

Move over, Millennials. The very youngest employees now entering the workplace are among the members of Generation Z, or those born between about 1990 and 2000. Your company’s interns are likely in this group, and like all workers, should be part of your recognition program. Intern recognition and engaging Generation Z is unique in several important ways as we’ll cover later in this post.
First, let’s look at who Gen Z’ers are and how they’re different from their older siblings, parents and grandparents. Consider this quote:
“Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”
These aren’t the words of a modern-day observer. They’re attributed to classical Greek philosopher Socrates, describing more than 2,000 years ago the youth of his day. Young people have always and will always occasionally get under the skin of their elders, and all discussion about “generations” should be taken with a grain of salt — not everyone fits the mold, after all.
That said, there are certain traits and views shaped by the shared experiences of people who grow up in the same time period. For Gen Z, the defining events of their young lives are 9/11, the Great Recession and reports of school violence.
They’re realists, according to Forbes’ On Marketing. The dark events of their youth “will undoubtedly make them more cautious and security-minded, but will also inspire them to improve the world.”
Bruce Tulgan tells SHRM Online in the article, “Generation Z: Why HR Must Be Prepared for Its Arrival,” that in contrast to Gen Y, which came of age in the relatively peaceful and prosperous ’90s, “Generation Z grew up post-9/11 and came of age in a time of fear and awareness of vulnerability.”
They’re also enthusiastic, ready to contribute and highly ambitious (which puts them on track to be even more entrepreneurial than Gen Y, as career and workplace expert Dan Schawbel predicts).
Tulgan, founder of consultancy Rainmaker Thinking, is the author of a white paper, Meet Generation Z: The Second Generation Within the Giant ‘Millennial’ Cohort. It’s a quick, informative read — highly recommended for anyone managing today’s teens and early twentysomethings.
Those born since 1990 already represent nearly 7 percent of the workforce, or more than 11 million people, according to Tulgan. Their numbers in the workforce are expected to swell to 30 million by 2019.
In the white paper, Tulgan writes that Gen Z “simultaneously grew up way too fast and never grew up at all. Their access to information, ideas, images and sounds is completely without precedent. At the same time, they are isolated and scheduled to a degree that children have never been.”
In a USA Today interview, he sums up the effects on Gen Z of these factors: “What I tell people is that nowadays, 12 is the new 19 and 30 is the new 20. That’s the best way of explaining what is happening.”
What this means for engagement and recognition, especially for interns, can be described in one word: intensive. Recognition has always been best when it is frequent, specific and personal, and that is doubly true for Gen Z’ers. Here are specific tips for encouraging and engaging Generation Z interns in your workplace
Recognition Tips for Engaging Generation Z
Individual Focus

“Focus on the individual. That’s what they are used to, and it’s probably how they made their recognition-worthy contribution anyway,” advises That’s Great News blogger Amy Day.
Reward Achievements in Learning
Day also recommends giving credit for education and learning achievement. Especially for interns, it is important to encourage further on-the-job learning and growth. Keep in mind that Gen Z has a reputation for not having basic workplace skills such as interpersonal communication, problem solving and time management and your interns will likely need reinforcement in this area.
Negotiate Transactional Rewards
Rewards are best shared with Gen Z on an ongoing transactional basis. “Gen Z’ers seem to be highly responsive to clearly defined exchanges of time/tasks for directly calibrated rewards,” Tulgan writes, and managers should “explicitly negotiate performance and reward on an ongoing basis in a transparent open exchange.”
Say ‘Thank You’ Publicly
When it comes to thanking interns, involve elements of tech and social media. Check out, for instance, what Survey Monkey did last year to thank its summer interns at the end of the season. On the Survey Monkey blog, the company posted a thank-you note and invited the interns to describe in their own words what they did over the summer and what it meant to them.
This show of gratitude works so well because a) it’s collaborative, b) it recognizes individual contributions but diplomatically does not single out any one intern for praise, and c) it’s online and public so the interns can share the link with their friends and family.
Thank You Notes Are the New Black
With all the emphasis on public recognition, don’t forget to also share a private thank you note with each intern. A handwritten note works best. Generational tastes may change over the years but thank you letters never go out of style (and in fact their rarity nowadays gives them extra cache).
For more on building a culture of gratitude and appreciation, download our FREE ebook, “Winning with Workplace Gratitude”. Click the image below and start sharing your gratitude today!
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