The declining art of conversation and Gen Y recruitment

Much has been written about the need for changes that employers should make in order to attract and retain Millennials and now Gen Z. We have seen a veritable outbreak of company Facebook pages, inter-active web sites, Twitter , TikTok and Instagram accounts, mentoring  programmes and the like. But as one client mentioned recently after a less than effective graduate recruitment job fair, an additional challenge is even more basic: to identify the best entry-level talent.

How can Gen Y recruitment adapt? I’m not even talking about text-speak or spelling errors on CVs,  but basic social inter- action during the interview process which is generally the backbone of most hiring systems. Bearing in mind that the older part of this generation are in their 30s and have kids and mortgages. It’s the younger ones in the group.

Modern technology has impacted us in many ways. Many are positive. Some are not.

Good on paper only

The platforms that are typically used and relied upon for Gen Y recruitment and entry-level screening are telephone interviews, video calls, job fair meetings and regular face to face interviews. Candidates are then frequently advanced to testing processes and more rigorous interviews. Today, undeveloped interpersonal skills means that many capable candidates don’t present well, causing increased difficulties for those in the hiring process to make an accurate preliminary triage. Clients are reporting the growing cost ineffectiveness of job fairs, as a result of this down turn in social skills. Many candidates with pre-submitted CVs, look great on paper but are under-performing in the face to face interview. So although we know that Millennials communicate and socialise differently to other generations, at some point they do have to engage with people outside their age group.

What happens when skills core to the talent identification process are deficient?

I am often asked in the University and Business School programmes I run, why I start basic interview preparation in the first session. The reason is the communication skills of many Millennials are so under developed, that they need extra time to get anywhere near an acceptable performance level for interviews.

Diminished interpersonal skills

Sherry Turkle in her excellent article the  Flight from Conversation eloquently portrays the downsides of the trend to block out communication and conversation on a whole generation who are “alone together”. University Career Directors both at undergraduate, Masters and MBA  level report a global pandemic of students mentally checking out of their classes and using Smart Phones and lap tops to log onto Facebook and email accounts during lectures. Attention spans are reduced and the incidence of talking amongst themselves in class is high. The result is they are sabotaging their own learning processes, which impacts their career prospects.

When I asked an MBA workshop group to turn off their phones for my session, one participant reacted as if I was contravening his civil liberties. An awareness of professional and even basic social etiquette seems to be at a minimum. A device driven generation, for increasing numbers their body language and even voice projection is weak. They may have great credentials but they can’t showcase them properly. At a recent Italian job fair a client cut  a  candidate because he responded to an incoming text in the middle of the interview.

But is the interview texter an unempathetic communicator or merely demonstrating multi- tasking skills? The poor presenter might have excellent potential and skills that are simply not evident. The problem is we just don’t know.

First impressions unreliable

First impressions are made in less than 15 seconds. In a situation where social skills are under developed and candidates are unable to make that key engagement with an interviewer as they should (poor eye contact, the ability to listen and tune into cues from the whole range of body language and voice tone), which is critical in an interview, how do recruiters sort out the wheat from the chaff?

Here are some solutions currently being considered:

  • Online testing: One response from a number of companies seems to be a growing shift to mass online testing prior to personal screening, using outsourced organisations such as SHL , or in-house assessment centres.  Follow-up procedures include further assessment tools before finally personal interviews to evaluate cultural fit and social skills.
  • Network recommendations:  seem to be becoming increasingly important and will favour candidates with strong personal networks possibly via well-connected family members or previous experience. In today’s economic climate this is not easy to come by and as we have seen with the flourishing unpaid intern sector both possibilities put less well placed candidates at a disadvantage. This is also a demographic which networks widely via Facebook and other social media, but the younger part of the demographic have only just started to develop a professional network.
  • Modifications to onboarding programmes: to incorporate communication skills training into in-house programmes sooner rather than later have been suggested. Whether this will provide the catch-up programme required remains to be seen.

Gen Y and Gen Z workers are some of the most independent-minded and tech-savvy workers employers have encountered. Changing recruitment models seems to be necessary not just to attract the best candidates, but to identify them too.

But the significant overall message to Millennial job seekers is to switch off  the lap top, iPad or Smart Phone  and practise the old-fashioned art of conversation. Many competent candidates are not making the cut  at interviews, simply because they don’t know how to communicate in a professional environment or even have a basic knowledge of acceptable social etiquette.

Gen Y candidates with social skills will be ahead of the game.


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17 thoughts on “The declining art of conversation and Gen Y recruitment

  1. Susan Mazza

    This is such an important topic Dorothy that I think goes way beyond the typical generational divide. There is a difference between embracing technology and hiding behind it. The cost of hiding behind it is beyond measure for individuals and society, but unfortunately hyperconnectivity can far too easily mask a lack of meaningful connection. That is true not just milenials

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Thanks Susan I agree you are right, many people hide behind technology rather than interact with their colleagues and friends. But it does seem to be a very generationally specific norm for Millenials, where their inter- personal skills are under developed, which leaves them at a disadvanatge in any recruitment process where an interview is the key component. A real challenge for graduate recruiters.

  2. Sharon Eden (@sharoneden)

    Excellent blog Dorothy! Someone needs to tell them that inter-personal skills in a live, rather than virtual, environment are essential requirements for the post. Then make a killing by running courses for this tech savvy/interpersonalskillsweak generation on the basics of human interpersonal commnication!

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Good idea Sharon! Interesting input from @DrJimHamill on Twitter
      “don’t agree with asking students to disconnect during lectures, leverage the technology”
      “it is the lecture Itself that has become dated, new pedagogy required”
      “Blaming technology is too easy – does our education system train our young people in these skills?”

      There seems to me a dichotomy – leverage technology for sure – but not all skills can be passed on via technological means and if young people are tapped out of human engagement then skills which are picked up via osmosis and interaction are missed. Nor can we lay the responsibility solely in the hands of education systems. Most universities can barely coach graudates on how to write a CV. Home life and family interaction is also important and possibly where it all starts!

      Complex topic though!

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  5. Bill Roddy (@billroddy)

    Thanks for the wonderful post! As a father whose daughter will be entering college in the fall, I am very interested in this topic and take the opportunity to coach her whenever possible. As a marketer and person who also interviews a lot of candidates, I haven’t seen this phenomenon yet, but I can see the wave coming. Hopefully school systems will get tuned into this potential problem sooner rather than later and develop curriculum to teach appropriate interpersonal skills. There is a lot being written about this topic, so hopefully actions will follow the words.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Hi Bill – thanks for your comment. Sadly I don’t think you can rely on schools to fill the gap in this area, so whatever you are doing with your daughter to develop her social and inter-personal skills will be really helpful. I know as a parent myself that some of those decisions will make you unpopular (limiting computer time, no phones at the table etc) but it will pay off in the end and she will thank you later!

  6. The Intentional Workplace

    Hi Dorothy,
    Great post, great need.

    Ever since I read Sherry Turkle’s book last year, the subject has been on my radar screen. As someone who is dedicated to promoting dialogue in the workplace, I am concerned about the trends you point to. While I think many of us non-Millennials are open and appreciate of new forms of communication, the reality is that basic human needs are not going to change because we have new ways to communicate. The core needs of safety and recognition will endure. True, neuroscience is exploring ways the brain might be changing due to the shifts in neural processing from a different form of communication and processing, but human dynamics are very slow to change.

    Your excellent examples present a huge challenge to adapt yet to converse and engage even more. Most organizations, not exactly great proponents,of interpersonal effectiveness, need to step up their programs that address the basics of human dynamics and communication.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Hi Louise – yes this is really interesting research from Sherry Turkle and I beleive as a recruiter we are only just scratching the surface of the wider implications of how we identify and correctly assess Gen Y talent.

  7. Emelia

    As an educator in the post-graduate realm, I have seen this trend over the last ten years. I’m an X with millennial tendencies, my colleagues are near retirement boomers and most of our students are millennials. I have been caught in the middle of miscommunication between parties more than a few times. The issue is in each side wanting the other to communicate in their preferred mode. As a result, each side misses out on what the other has to offer. Unfortunately, the gap hasn’t improved as much as is needed.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Hi Emilia – thanks for your comment. Interesting what you say but wondered if you can think of any solutions? In terms of the hiring and work process a degree of effective personal interaction is necessary. By already shifting the testing process to the first stage organisations are recognising that something needs to be done. Unless we have a work place where everyone is in their isolated pods working in a vacuum other than by e communication. We seem to be heading this way already.

      At a recent business lunch 2 of the 4 diners.(Gen X) were engaged processing emails on their Crackberries rendering the lunch useless in real terms. What do you think possible solutions could be?

  8. Wendy Mason

    This is such an interesting subject. I wonder how we blend greater human interaction into our on-line presence. At the moment on-line we communicate predominantly through text. But what happens when we progress to the point where our personal; avatars on-line begin to reflect our moods and gestures – will “human” interaction on line develop an etiquette that includes eye contact – my own particular issue with Gen X? In the meantime it would be great if we could give them to the confidence to work in different cultures – or at least two; one with their peer group and another with us older “aliens”.

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  10. Emelia

    Not really sure, Dorothy, about solutions. I thought awareness would promote better communication, but neither side appears to be willing to meet halfway. I don’t know if there’s a halfway. I know I can flow in either situation but most people are comfortable with their own style.

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  12. Anita Arcieri Bugan

    This is a great post, Dorothy and one we should all hone in on. I have great admiration and respect for a friend of mine who teaches high school students. At the entrance to her classroom is a basket and all cell phones are deposited there as the students enter. They can pick them up at the end of class. I have another friend who leaves his phone at home when he’s with me. It’s a simple act but I find it flattering. Isn’t it silly that tuning out is what turns us on? It’s because of these two people that I find myself walking away from my phone more often now.


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