Today’s business leaders have firsthand experience with the distinct sets of values that each generation brings to the workplace. Whereas younger generations often prioritize the holistic employee experience, older generations focus more on “traditional” motivators, such as high paychecks and prestigious titles. In spite of their differences, however, the different generations share one preference that transcends age: a desire for recognition.
Many multigenerational workforces have found success using employee recognition programs to uplift company culture. These tools resonate with employees of all ages, because humans are hard-wired to feel good when they receive recognition. Employee recognition programs capitalize on this need for praise to boost morale and bring colleagues closer together.
Although people of all ages are generally on board with the concept of recognition, different generations vary when it comes to how they want to be recognized and what rewards they want. Leaders committed to making the workplace an inclusive environment for members of all generations must design recognition programs that are truly meaningful to employees of all backgrounds. Understanding the generational traits and preferences described below can be a useful starting point.
Keep in mind that these are broad descriptions and generalizations. When developing and implementing recognition programs, leaders must remember that they’re interacting with individual employees who have their own unique preferences, values, tastes, and expectations. Just because a manager knows what generations their staff belong doesn’t means that manager knows everything about how those employees want to be recognized.
Generation Z is the youngest generation in today’s workforce, with its oldest members only just beginning their careers. The members of this generation bring with them an expectation for regular recognition—not because they’re entitled, but because it’s what they’re used to: raised in a world in which they receive likes and comments mere moments after they share new content, this generation expects near-continuous feedback. Therefore the most important thing to keep in mind when recognizing Generation Z at work is simply do it—and do it often.
When it comes to rewards, Generation Z is a lot more practical than one might expect for a cohort so young. Although there is still much to understand about this generation, so far it’s known for prioritizing facts and having a very practical mindset. With a strong moral compass arising from this pragmatic worldview, Generation Z is likely to appreciate rewards that drive progress toward important social causes (such as donations, time off to volunteer, etc.).
As emerging adults, Millennials developed a somewhat negative reputation. Labeled “The Me Me Me Generation,” this group has been wrongly blamed for ruining the housing market, dinner dates, napkins, and many other aspects of American society. In truth, though, they just hold different values from those held by their predecessors. It took a while for the rest of society to understand that, but fortunately that more accurate perception is gaining traction.
Like Generation Z, Millennials know the world as a place steeped in technology. Because the members of this generation can seamlessly integrate new software and platforms into their digital ecosystems, companies should not hesitate to rely on online platforms for recognizing them. Also like Generation Z, Millennials are accustomed to getting continuous updates from peers via social media and therefore also expect fairly frequent feedback in the workplace. Without such feedback, the members of this sensitive generation may assume that they’re doing something wrong; therefore, their managers should not neglect to recognize them.
Millennials are focused on experiences and finding a sense of meaning in life. Experiential rewards might look like concert tickets or travel perks. Rewards that help them feel connected to a larger purpose might take the form of letting them make a donation to a charity of their choosing. One great reward that combines Millennials’ two main focuses is VTO (volunteer time off) days, which speaks both to their preference for experiential rewards and to their desire to give back to the world at large.
Sometimes described as “the forgotten generation,” Generation X has been stereotyped less—and received less attention—than the generations adjacent to it. That’s not to say this group doesn’t have its fair share of unique traits and preferences, though.
Like anyone, the members of Generation X love receiving recognition. But unlike other generations, this cohort generally prefers to be recognized in private or within small groups. Such aversion to public fanfare is somewhat unsurprising given this generation’s desire for autonomy and independence. Although managers should always check their employees’ comfort levels about receiving public recognition, they should be especially mindful about doing so when working with Generation X.
Generation X places a high value on work–life balance (and in fact pioneered this approach). When rewarding Generation X employees, leaders should look for ways to give them back some personal time (by giving them an extra day off, for example, or options for flexible schedules) or rewards that improve their quality of life outside the office (such as travel perks or subscription to meal delivery services). The better this generation does outside of work, the better it will do at work, too.
Unsurprisingly, Baby Boomers are the most “traditional” of the generations currently in today’s workforce. Sometimes their preferences are directly at odds with those of the generations that followed them, which can lead to friction as they see the workplace evolving away from their familiar values and ideals.
Baby Boomers engaged with technology in the early days of their careers very differently from how other generations did when they started working. When delivered digitally, recognition is still meaningful to Baby Boomers, but to have maximum value to them it should incorporate at least some in-person elements, especially for more momentous occasions. It can be as simple as a lunchtime toast to the employee or as elaborate as an awards ceremony.
Baby Boomers tend to gravitate more toward “traditional” workplace rewards, such as promotions, cushy corner offices, and plaques commemorating their accomplishments. As they near retirement, they’re also increasingly interested in health- and wellness-related perks to help them feel continually supported in taking care of themselves.
Streamlining a Recognition Program
Keeping all of these recommendations in mind might seem overwhelming. With four different generations working side by side, today’s workplace has more age diversity than ever before. And with lifespans lengthening and people staying in the workforce longer, such age diversity will only increase.
The best thing organizations can do is select recognition programs with plenty of room for customization, so they can offer recognition that truly caters to the preferences, needs, and values of all employees. Customized rewards can include personalized recognition events, prize catalogues, and many other forms that recognize workers in thoughtful and inclusive ways.
With these tips in mind, leaders should be well equipped to develop recognition programs that truly uplift and unite their multigenerational workforces. As the workplace moves toward more and more age diversity, having this kind of strategy in place will be critical to the long-term success of any organization and its employees.
1Tracy Francis and Fernanda Hoefel. 2018. "True Gen: Generation Z and Its Implications for Companies." McKinsey website, November 12, www.mckinsey.com/industries/consumer-packaged-goods/our-insights/true-gen-generation-z-and-its-implications-for-companies...
2Joel Stein. 2013. "Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation." Time website, May 9, time.com/247/millennials-the-me-me-me-generation/..
3Kari Paul. 2017. "Here Are All the Things Millennials Have Been Accused of Killing ... from Dinner Dates to Golf." Marketwatch website, October 12, www.marketwatch.com/story/here-are-all-of-the-things-millennials-have-been-accused-of-killing-2017-05-22.
4Ann Kerian. Undated. "Generation X: They Work to Live, Not Live to Work." West Bend Mutual Insurance Company website, www.thesilverlining.com/resources/blog/generation-x..