The author is head of the careers service at the University of Oxford and writes the FT’s Dear Jonathan careers advice column
As this year’s graduates move into the job market, many employers are realising they have to change the way they recruit and retain a new generation of workers, with different priorities. In my work at the Oxford university careers service, and when talking to other careers services worldwide, we are seeing that the old rules of recruiting no longer apply. Leaders who don’t adapt may not be able to attract — and keep — talented graduates in a still-tight labour market.
Recent graduates and current students are digital natives, part of Generation Z, born between 1997 and 2012. Robert Neuhauser, Siemens’ global head of talent and leadership, says: “This generation is different as they have grown up in the digital space . . . and want to be found [by recruiters] in the digital space.” Siemens has changed its recruitment processes to follow the digital footprints left by Gen Z, for example on Facebook — and approach candidates who seem to match its requirements.
This sort of “digital fishing” only works when candidates are active online. Other recruiters have focused on changing their processes to seek a more diverse pool of applicants. Koreo, a consultancy working with purpose-driven and community focused organisations, has adopted a “radical inclusivity” approach to recruitment in the Charityworks training and development scheme it runs, according to Craig Pemblington, Koreo’s head of projects. “We took many actions to, for example, raise Bame [black, Asian and minority ethnic] participation on the programme from 8 per cent to 38 per cent over four years,” he says. Changes included “anonymised applications and assessing answers for the same question across the cohort rather than all the answers for each individual.”
For some organisations, diversity of talent is intrinsic and necessary to their operations. Jason Pronyk, senior partnerships adviser at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Geneva, says: “We can’t continue to source talent just from elite western institutions so are breaking down barriers to entry, for example with paid internships.”
Students can feel overwhelmed by the vast amount of information available online and need or seek help to narrow down the choice. One second year law student reported selecting employers by reviewing the “stash” (branded sweatshirts etc) that was handed out, and another wrote “I know what job I want so I wish the careers service would connect me with potential employers”. Once they have identified their target potential employers, this generation of graduate job applicants is generally extremely well-informed about each one — they will source information from LinkedIn, fairs, and websites such as Glassdoor to see what existing and previous staff have said, and they will have questions about wider corporate purpose, for example, and about career development and mentoring opportunities.
KPMG’s chief people officer Kevin Hogarth says that organisations report that not only are applicants well prepared (as one might imagine) but “are asking as many searching and challenging questions on environment, sustainability and governance (ESG) issues as on any other topic”.
In the new recruitment climate, leaders have to be prepared to have frank dialogues with candidates about the company, rather than the traditional model of asking most of the questions themselves, with job applicants given a chance to “ask something about the firm” at the end of an interview. At fund manager Baillie Gifford, careers manager Claire Stevens says: “Graduates dig into the issues at offer time, and the firm offers ‘honest conversations’ with the partners.” Global law firm Clifford Chance runs sessions hosted by senior partners to answer questions around the purpose, values and culture of the firm.
Organisations seeking to recruit Gen Z (and to a certain extent Millennials, aged 26-41) are increasingly showcasing ways in which the work on offer either has purpose itself, or can support other purposeful activities. At Siemens, Neuhauser says that staff ask: “Is this work something useful?” With a focus on recruiting technology staff, the company attracts Gen Z with the offer that they will do something “with meaning in the real world. Apply your AI [artificial intelligence] skills to healthcare, transport or energy.” At Koreo, Pemblington sees that Gen Z staff want to “bring more of themselves to work, and not just to work on something with social impact but to feel that ‘my work matters’ ”.
Another avenue for Gen Z recruiters is to highlight how employees can connect their work to broader societal purposes. At KPMG, for example, Hogarth describes the Our Impact website, which outlines the firm’s support for schools, and social mobility. And at the UN, Pronyk describes the organisation’s “increased willingness to deploy young staff to be closer to the beneficiaries [of its refugee and poverty relief work] where they can be more engaged, and the work has more meaning”.
Flexible and hybrid work offers are now expected as standard by Gen Z staff. In a June 2022 survey of 647 Oxford students, “Good work/life balance” was the most important attribute of a job, edging out “Intellectually challenging” from the number one position for the first time. Any professional employer that is demanding five days a week in the office is likely to find its pool of candidates shrinking. KPMG, for example, is looking at asking for an average of two days a week in the office or at a client site and three days at home.
While purposeful work and location flexibility are part of the offer to attract Gen Z, it is internal peer networks that have emerged as playing a strong part in retaining and motivating early career staff. David Shelley, chief executive of Hachette UK, describes peer-to-peer networks at the publishing company as “a lot more important than in the past. Whether organised on LGBTQ+, gender, wellbeing, Bame, faith, socio-economic background, disability, or age themes, the learning opportunities in the networks are cited [in internal surveys] as giving the most satisfaction to staff, two-thirds of whom are actively engaged.”
Gen Z staff themselves expect to work in a diverse organisation. As Pemblington observes, at Koreo and Charityworks, “the challenge to be more diverse came from our white middle class colleagues. The next challenge is that the talent should feel disruptive. We need to give them [Gen Z] the space to . . . not just be heard but to have an impact.”
At Siemens, Neuhauser welcomes Gen Z: “It’s cool to have the new generation coming in, they are allies to the ‘change culture’.”
Embedding a so-called “disruptive culture” — meaning one that empowers Gen Z to have an impact and have their views heard and acted on by senior leaders — may feel quite challenging to the current organisation, but it can also support the corporate mission and connect the staff to the wider world. At Hachette, for example, Shelley observes that “work seems less linear, and we encourage more side hustles like blogs, mentoring and work in schools. The more staff are connected to the outside world, [where] our readers [are] after all, the better.”
A growing number of organisations are recognising that many Gen Z staff (and potential staff) will regard a company’s actions on ESG and equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) as being as important as the terms on offer around pay and location.
Those recruiters that have taken this on with open discussions on the topics, including being clear if the organisation still has work to do, are doing all they can to attract a more diverse and perhaps less traditional group of staff. Those that then go on and fully embrace this potentially disruptive new wave of talent, throughout the workplace, will build a sustainable, diverse and attractive organisation.
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