Gen Z – Direct Communication With Your Youngest Workers

Starr Thurber, LPC, LMFT and I have teamed up again to help steer you away from avoidable pitfalls with your brand new, fresh from high school employees. We cannot squeeze an entire communication course into a single post, but these suggestions will give you a good launch point for further study and creative thought.

No Trying to Talk Their Talk: The obvious is true: Clear communication requires using a common language through which all participants grasp the information the other participants are conveying.

Have you ever tried to discuss a subject with a member of Gen Z or someone at the tail of the Millennial group and concluded that you must be from different planets?


Every generational band has its own slang terminology. This group uses words that are not really words – or at least they weren’t real words a few years ago. They also use some words that look like words you thought you knew, but which mean something entirely different to them – lit, fleek, fire, salty, tea, suh, thirsty, milk, bet. Trust me when I tell you that these words are not even close to what you think they mean. They’re not profane or “inappropriate for the workplace,” but “milk” does not mean the substance from a cow. Moreover, many of these words cleverly condense entire concepts into a single word.


Some of their trendy (or trending…) words have different, nuanced meanings based on context. They don’t even agree among themselves, as they seem to extract the meanings from whatever they happen to read on the Internet, which could be any random mishmash of memes, forums, or peer communication threads.

I offer an illustration of the ambiguity afoot, plus a free quasi definition you will want to file away: I sought a definition of “bet.” My older son responded that “bet” simply means “yes.” My younger son separately informed me that it meant “awesome.” When I questioned the discrepancy, a full-class discussion in my younger son’s senior AP English Lit class ensued, and the class reached the consensus that “bet definitely means ‘awesome with an exclamation point,’ but it can mean other things, too.” Okay….

Do not attempt to use these words unless you are a certified native-speaker, i.e., someone born after 1990 (or so my son tells me). If you do, you are asking for trouble. You may say something thinking that you are down with today’s terminology, but you may have just said something wildly insulting or which makes no sense, really, to either of you.

If your newbies use terms and cultural references that are meaningless to you, ask them to translate. You need to understand what they are saying while they’re on your clock.

Limit You Own Use of Slang (Archaic?) Terminology: On the flip side, watch the slang and figures of speech you use with them because there is a good chance they won’t fully understand what you mean, either. (See, for high level reference, the Internet slide programs highlighting defunct slang terms of the seventies, etc.)

Mind Your Nonverbals: Only 7% of effective verbal communication comes from the actual words we use. That means that the overwhelming proportion of the communication that gets through to your employees is your body language and vocal quality. Pay attention to your voice volume, cadence, and tone. Keep your volume appropriate to the setting and situation. Your tone will convey more about your message than your choice of words. (Turns out your own elders were right!). Is your message clear and direct? Select a tone that conveys authority and the expectation that your directives will be followed, without being harsh, overbearing, or condescending. Remember that trying to use a joking tone may create confusion as to whether what you asked them to do is optional or unimportant.


Employee See, Employee Do: Model the behavior you want your employees to use. If you want your employees to interact with your customers in a certain way, see to it that you demonstrate this same behavior. If it is important for them to wash their hands before handling food, be sure that you consistently wash your own hands before doing so. If you salt your workplace conversation with expletives, you can bet these neophytes will not miss that detail and will likely conclude that ‘appropriate language” is a term up for grabs.

Communication for Action: Effective communication in the workplace or in any setting where action is required is quite different from communication that expresses emotions, ideas or thoughts. This communication is a two-way contract between a speaker and a listener. When you give instructions, state them in clear, direct terms. Identify what you need your employee to do and specify a time-frame for completion. And be sure that you get a response showing that he/she understands and plans to carry out the task.

Encourage your employees to ask questions if they are uncertain about what they should do. Your part of the “bargain” here is to refrain from ridiculing them for asking sincere questions, even if you are amazed at what you are being asked!

Importantly, bear in mind that what you want the employee to do is crystal clear in your mind, but your employee may not have such a clear picture in his head. Your new employee might have full intention of carrying out your directives, but still the job does not get done or gets done incorrectly because they don’t understand what, exactly, you expect them to do. For example, if you instruct your employee to clean the bathrooms, make sure he understands what “cleaning” entails. Which bathrooms are to be cleaned? Sinks and commodes and floors? Adding paper products? Dry off the sink area or actually use cleanser and a scrub brush? (Remember, too, that they come from homes where different standards of cleanliness apply. You must make your standards clear.)

As you soldier through with the extra attentiveness needed to develop young employees, give yourself a pat on the back. Your business might just be the initial training ground for learning these valuable life skills that will help these young people do well in all of their later jobs.

Dress Code: You have simplified your days greatly if your public–facing employees wear a uniform or other prescribed attire. Good thinking! If that includes a hat, so much the better.

On the other hand, a written dress code will help you bridge the troubled waters of widely divergent opinions of whether a blouse with cut-outs is appropriate or whether someone has a “Constitutional right” to display a swath of tattooing.

Understand that whatever their look is, they have likely put great thought into it. They may be shocked – genuinely shocked – that you don’t share their vision of what is awesomely stylish.


As is true with most of us, your youthful crew view personal appearance – hair, clothing, accessories – as a form of self-expression. First, understand that a young man’s beachy, tousled hair sticking out in all directions looks fabulous to him. It was washed and blow-dried… and then gunked up with Beach Waves spray and yanked in all directions, all to purposely evoke the look of someone fresh out of Category 1 winds. He thinks he looks cool, while you think his hair looks dirty and unkempt. (Does anyone recognize any member of my family here?)

Educate your newbies that while they are on shift, their appearance is meant to communicate the business’s brand, not their personal brand. Help them understand that your requirements exist for safety reasons and to convey a consistent message about the business, not as a personal attack on their individual taste. If the business’s brand requires covering up tattoos or removing certain piercings, wearing shoes with toes, a particular hat, jeans without holes, red shirts, and tops that cover belly buttons, explain and expect that.


Legal Reminders: Professional appearance standards cannot be used as an excuse to screen out employees based on ethnicity or other protected personal characteristics. (This subject goes beyond the scope of a blog post, but study up on the lessons of Abercrombie & Fitch.) Moreover, some employees may be entitled to adjustment of your standard dress code for religious or other legally protected reasons.

The general principles described above are not legal advice or other professional advice of any kind and are intended as guidelines only. Consult competent counsel or other professional support in dealing with any problematic issues.

© 2018 Elizabeth Pratt, PLLC