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As Next-Gens Enter Workforce,

Reinforcement Seems Vital


Over-praised Recruits

Pose New Legal Challenge

to Managers


            Observers of the younger generation entering the workforce have reported the steps corporate America is taking to manage the well-complimented.  The April 20 Wall Street Journal visited this question, “The Most Praised Generation Goes to Work,” and although the point may be exaggerated, it deserves attention.

            The Journal piece recounts how businesses – ranging from Bank of America to regional paper companies -  are using consultants and special staff personnel to assure that the new wave of employees gets pats on the back through e mail, confetti (coordinated by a “celebrations assistant”), and other kudos.  The Container Store praises an employee approximately every twenty seconds, using, among other things, “Celebration Voice Mailboxes.”    Behind the policy of reinforcing workers who perform – at expectations or above – is a concern that youngsters who were overpraised when raised will become anxious or depressed without positive comments.  Behavior scientists have weighed in with the finding that younger people are more self-centered than those who came before them.

            One corporate consultant on “praise issues” contrasts over sixty workers, who are content with a paycheck as a symbolic compliment, with the under forty set, that require “far more stroking.”  They need “near-constant feedback.”  An executive in the Journal article advises managers to praise younger employees when they meet expectations. 

            How are managers to go about this increased attention-giving?  The Journal recommends using less “evaluative praise” adjectives like “great” and “terrific” but instead employing fact-based observations like “you had everyone’s attention during your presentation.”  Consistent with the overall mischief e-mail can create in the workplace, businesses are advised to avoid excessive use of this medium to issue mass compliments.  Personal communication is better. 

            And of course, if a manager’s habit in the first place is to counsel employees only when they mess up, an immediate change in this manager’s behavior is in order.  Before this younger generation came along, it was always legally important for bosses to give balanced feedback to their reports.

            Perhaps the positive reinforcement culture reflected in the Journal article can trace its origins to the self-help and personal potential movement that was in full paperback-book swing in the seventies.  This culture initially theorized that each individual was special, to compensate for the excessive conformity, maldevelopment and lack of self-esteem that resulted from a society that had gone to the other extreme.  But the “I am special” theme expanded from there, fostering a child-centered approach to family life.  Kids were told regularly that they were uniquely great.

            Whatever the reason, the notion that older employees do not require the same strokes as younger ones is a legally dangerous management tool.  A cottage industry that supports business in its strategy to hold on to younger workers through “near-constant feedback” should be prepared to answer these questions:

            Ultimately employers caught up in this latest human resources “product” will have to face the most serious risk:  the decrease in quality and quantity of production.  If production sustains itself, the danger of excessive and inflated compliments is minimal.  But if production suffers, a more collective, self-sacrificing model may be required.