[IMGCAP(1)]What happens when new employees are hired, especially younger employees, who represent a new generation entering the profession?

Does the accounting profession know what to expect as Generation Y enters the workforce?

Their goals, expectations and values may be different from their predecessors, and managers and partners need to understand any potential culture shift. Here are some suggestions for managing Gen Y.

A generation is an “identifiable group that shares birth years, age location, and significant life events at critical development stages,” B.R. Kupperschmidt once wrote. The accounting profession, like the workforce in general, is dominated by the Baby Boomers, those born between roughly 1946 and 1961, the oldest of whom are now approaching retirement, and Generation X, born between 1962 and 1979.

Gen Y (also called the Millennial Generation) is usually defined as those born in the years 1980 to 2000. The oldest members of Gen Y turn 31 this year, and your firm has probably already hired, and will continue to hire, Gen Y.

Events That Shaped Gen Y
Like all labeled generations, Gen Y’s common experiences helped to shape their shared behaviors. Three of the most prominent influences include the following:

•  Mega-traumas, including historic acts of terrorism, school violence and natural disasters;
•  Increased access to technology and new forms of communication; and,
•  A pro-child culture in which mothers frequently work outside the home.

[IMGCAP(2)]These influences can’t help but shape Gen Y’s attitudes toward work. Many members of the Class of 2010 who are entering the profession this year watched the events of Sept. 11, 2001, on TV at the age of 12 or 13. They were college freshmen when multiple students were killed during a mass shooting at Virginia Tech.


Media coverage of violent attacks and natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, create a sense that the world is a dangerous place and that life can end suddenly. The Gen Y response is to want to live life fully now. To sacrifice their personal life now for possible future rewards (promotion, salary) does not make sense to many of the members of Gen Y. For the young worker, personal relationships are extremely important.

Technology is ubiquitous to Gen Y. It connects them to the world and to one another. Gen Y is the first generation to be constantly connected and in continual communication with friends and family. In the past few years, texting has replaced voice as the primary way of communicating for Gen Y, and e-mail is “old” technology.

Gen Y, because of the Internet, see information as always accessible — no need for a physical reference library — and they participate in content creation via blogs, Web pages and social networks. There are a lot of positives to hiring a generation that is comfortable with technology, but there are challenges too when staff members do not recognize the boundaries between their work and personal lives.

Gen Y was raised by Baby Boomer parents who spent more time with their children than previous generations, and who are often actively involved in their children’s lives into adulthood. Growing up in a child-centered, “everyone is special” culture, however, may have contributed to the increase in the number of college students who, in a national survey published in the Journal of Managerial Psychology, agreed with statements such as, “I think I am a special person” and “I can live my life any way I want to.”

A firm can benefit from confident professionals with high self-esteem, but an excess can result in some young professionals beginning work with higher expectations about the opportunities they actually will have to make contributions. They expect their work to be immediately meaningful, even at the entry level.

Generational Differences
In 2010, the Pew Research Center conducted an extensive survey of members of Gen Y about values and morals, and compared their views to those of older generations. It found that people of all ages thought there were differences.

Two-thirds of the people they surveyed, regardless of age, believed that older Americans have better moral values, a better work ethic, and are more respectful of others. Gen Y has not been in the workforce long enough for extensive comparisons to their predecessors, but here are a few differences that have been identified.

In the Pew survey, Gen Y was the only generation that did not cite “work ethic” as one of its primary claims to distinctiveness.

In an open-ended question, the largest response was that use of technology was what made their generation distinctive, with music/pop culture coming in second. The good news for Baby Boomers managing Gen Y is that the majority of Gen Y respondents to the survey respect the work ethic of older adults.

Gen Y places high importance on autonomy and work-life balance, while Boomers are thought to focus on a more traditional model of dedication to work. This does not mean that Gen Y will not work hard and spend the time necessary to complete a task, but they want flexibility and may not understand the idea of “face time” or the need for a fixed schedule. The publication Catalyst interviewed young CPAs to see what they expected from their employers and the profession. One CPA commented, “Our generation wants to get in, get our stuff done, and get out. We even like to work from home some days. Face time isn’t as important to us as getting the job done.”

Another commented that putting in the hours at the office seemed more important in industry than in public accounting, where it’s more about “getting the work done.”

Recent college students display higher scores on measures of self-esteem and narcissism. The rise may explain why some young CPAs often enter the profession with high, maybe unrealistic, expectations. They are confident in their abilities and want the opportunity to contribute to the organization. One of the young CPAs interviewed by Catalyst noted that what she liked about public accounting was the amount of responsibility she was given from the start.

Challenges exist for managers doing performance appraisals of staff who are accustomed to succeeding in school and receiving praise for their efforts. Gen Y wants feedback on performance, but sometimes has difficulty accepting criticism.

Gen Y appreciates authenticity, especially in leaders. Authentic leaders are aware of their own and others’ values and demonstrate high moral character. Gen Y has high expectations, and if those expectations are not met, they leave. Generally, loyalty to a company or firm ranks below loyalty to self. Gen Y has a much higher loyalty to their work and the people they work with than to the firm.

Gen Y does not have a need for social approval. Studies that measure need for social approval find that those who score low on this trait are less concerned with the impression they make on others, are less likely to conform, and are more casual. Studies of college students have shown that need for social approval has declined sharply since the 1970s. Gen Y is more relaxed and informal in their dress. Moving from the college wardrobe of flip-flops and T-shirts to business casual, much less business attire, is a leap. Their definition of “casual” is not how the profession defines “casual.”

A young workforce that resists conformity can create challenges for employers who want staff that project a professional appearance. However, resistance to conformity can also translate into willingness to try new things and be creative. The challenge for managers is to balance Gen Y employees’ desires to do things their own way and the need for firm processes and procedures to be followed.

In a report published in February 2010, the Pew Research Center described Gen Y as confident, connected, and open to change. Surveying 2,020 respondents, including 830 from Gen Y, Pew found that many of the differences attributed to Gen Y were more a function of age than long-lasting generational divides. However, there were some striking differences that affect the way this generation views work, family and friends, government, and ethics.

Managing Gen Y
Members of Gen Y are frequently characterized as cynical. They question authority, but they want leaders who are ethical and inspiring. Ethics need to be a part of training programs: supervisors need to model ethical behavior, and they should expect ethical conduct.

Kathryn Yeaton, in the CPA Journal, describes Gen Y as having a strong sense of morality. They are goal- and achievement-oriented, digital natives who value intelligence, innovation, and work-family balance. They are multitaskers, and enjoy group work and collaboration. Business schools have changed pedagogy to meet Gen Y where they are, stressing group work, exercises in critical thinking, integration of technology and research tools, service learning in the community, and hybrid learning environments integrating the classrooms with online learning.

Firm policies related to time need to be clearly stated and accurately communicated to potential Gen Y employees. Members of this generation are generally willing to put in the hours required to get a job done, but they want to be judged by the quality of the work, not the hours it took to produce it. They are also unlikely to be happy in a firm where efficiency is “rewarded” by an increased workload.

Members of Gen Y are not used to having their performance criticized, and some may have a hard time accepting negative feedback about job performance. The best feedback is specific and concrete, identifying both what needs to be improved and what was done well. Gen Y members like working in teams and need to see how their actions affect others.

Recognize that Gen Y is going to be on social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Provide guidelines on work access and expected behavior. At a minimum, Gen Y needs to understand that policies on confidentiality and disclosure apply in an online environment. Be clear that there are ethical dimensions to online behavior. What is communicated online may seem anonymous, but it can affect others.

The research firm TRU surveyed 1,000 young adults ages 18 to 24 regarding their online behavior and security precautions. The survey found that more than seven out of 10 were not always careful when posting or accessing information online. Risky behavior was reported in social networking, resulting in negative consequences to identity and reputation. While Gen Y understands the risks associated with unsafe online habits, they are not taking action to change their behaviors. Some of the behaviors found include the following, according to a survey by EMC Corp.:

• 73 percent acknowledged concern about being a victim of online fraud or identity theft;
• 71 percent admitted not always being careful about their online safety;
• More than 50 percent admitted to both using the same password for all of their online accounts and staying logged-in to their personal sites to avoid the time and hassle of logging in every time; and,
• More than 75 percent were willing to accept more risk when purchasing items online in return for lower prices.

The use of social media may be particularly troublesome to a firm when complying with the AICPA Code of Professional Conduct. Under Rule 301, Confidential Client Information, “a member in public practice shall not disclose any confidential client information without the specific consent of the client.” However, ethics rulings state that it is permissible to disclose the name of a client, whether publicly or privately owned, without the client’s specific consent, unless the disclosure of the client’s name constitutes the release of confidential information, as with bankruptcy.

With young staff members tweeting their whereabouts to friends and family, the risk of violating confidential client relationships is magnified and documented.

In case you haven’t already noticed, yes, Gen Y employees are different than you were. Based on the studies of Gen Y, there is nothing to indicate that the future of the accounting profession is in jeopardy. Members of Gen Y have the mindset and skills to develop into future professionals and leaders. The real work will be done by you in deciding how you manage and develop this different culture for success.

Mary Jeanne Welsh, PhD, CPA, is professor of accounting and department chair at La Salle University, and chair of the Pennsylvania CPA Journal Editorial Board. She can be reached at welsh@lasalle.edu. Paul R. Brazina, CPA, is dean of the La Salle University School of Business. He is a member of the PICPA Education Committee and the PICPA Foundation Board of Directors. He can be reached at brazina@lasalle.edu.

Reprinted with permission from the Pennsylvania CPA Journal, a publication of the Pennsylvania Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

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