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Head of the Class

A group of seniors at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School sat down to discuss their thoughts about entering the workforce. Some of what they had to say may surprise you.

Monday, February 1, 2010
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When it comes to Generation Y -- what they expect from the workplace, how they behave, what they think of corporate America -- there's no shortage of experts eager to tell HR executives their theories of how to recruit, retain and manage this cohort of young people (generally born between the 1980s and early 1990s).

Here at Human Resource Executive®, considering that our suburban Philadelphia location puts us in close proximity to the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School (considered one of the finest business schools in the country), we decided to hold a roundtable discussion with a group of actual Gen Yers -- Wharton seniors who will be graduating this spring -- to find out what's on their minds when it comes to the world of work.

The aim was to get their viewpoint, straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak.

The result was a freewheeling discussion -- from some of tomorrow's prime picks for business posts throughout the country -- about everything from their ideal employer-of-choice to ways the job-interviewing process could be improved. The student participants were Tanvi Goel, Raymond Flores, Neil Modi, James Liu, Andrew Stern, Daphne Calderon-Sitirche and Carlotta Siniscalco. The roundtable was moderated by Senior Editor Andrew R. McIlvaine. We trust what follows are some helpful and eye-opening insights into what resonates among these future business leaders.

If you were to describe your employer of choice, what are three or four qualities the employer would have?

Liu: I think the first thing is a positive impact on the world. I really look at the mission of the company that I'm interested in and whether or not it's actually creating good, or creating something that's useful for the world. The second is office culture. Are people generally excited about what they do and the people they work with?

Modi: I think one of the top qualities I look for is genuineness. When I'm going into an interview and I'm talking to people at the firm, I want to see that they're open-minded, and they're not trying to put up a front or façade. Because at the end of the day, if you're spending 80 hours a week with these guys, you want to be able to talk to them.

Flores: One thing that James mentioned was impact. I think that really resonates with me -- knowing that the company is doing good or going further to do good in society. I worked for the government, at the Office of Management and Budget. Knowing that the work I was doing was really impacting the federal government was gratifying.

What would you guys describe as your ideal level of job feedback from your future bosses? There's typically an annual review or maybe a six-month review. But what are you guys really looking for in terms of that level of feedback?

Modi: At Wharton, they really stress feedback in every form possible -- informal, formal and all different levels of hierarchy. And after working last summer, I think one of the best things I got out of it was that it was a two-way street -- direct communication and feedback constantly. It wasn't like there was some kind of set, "OK, let me sit you down once a year and talk to you about how you've been doing." We have that in place, but, in between, my supervisor would be constantly telling me, "Hey, I like this work. Why don't you show me what you're doing on this." He's actually invested in me growing as a professional at the company. And I think that really matters.

Siniscalco: And besides, it really improves the overall culture if you're able to establish that kind of informal feedback. Then you don't have any unpleasant surprises once a year, where you may think you did a fantastic job, and then your boss comes out and says, "Everybody says that you're not being collaborative." If you're able to correct your mistakes as you go, then you'll do better and the firm does better.

Liu: I just want to highlight a point made by Neil about the two-way feedback. I think when you actually feel comfortable saying to your manager, "I didn't like the way you managed me on this project," or, "I wish you could change such-and-such," that's very important. While it's great to get feedback, it's also really important to give feedback.

Stern: When I worked at Deloitte's human capital consulting practice, I had a weekly meeting with a partner on my project for an hour, which I'm thinking is unheard of. That this person, who is incredibly busy, will shut off his BlackBerry, shut off his laptop for an hour every single week like clockwork and meet with me to talk about how I'm doing on my project, how I'm adjusting to the firm, how I'm adjusting to the life of consulting, what he can do to help me to get better acquainted with other individuals within the firm -- that was especially impressive to me.

How important is it for your generation to have access to applications such as Facebook and Twitter in the office?

Goel: It's really important to me because this summer I worked at a place where all those things were banned. I wasn't allowed to go to Facebook or check my school e-mail or Gmail or anything. It just seemed like such a school environment where I'm given these little rules to follow. And it kind of just got, almost like, "I'm an employee, you hired me, you can trust me." I know what I'm doing. I'm not going to waste my time and not do the work I'm assigned just because I'm distracted by Facebook. I'm not in third grade.

Flores: I was in a workplace where those things weren't allowed as well. And I think for me, it begs a question of being able to communicate with your peers during the workday, especially when the situation is such that after work hours, you don't really have time to communicate with your peers or your friends. So that access is really important for me. In terms of whether I would turn down an offer because of it, I would consider it because it begs the question of, "Is that the culture I want to be in; is that the type of environment I want to put myself in?"

Modi: I feel it's almost kind of naïve to have that blocked to employees. First, I think the trust factor is huge. It speaks a lot about the culture. I mean, it's the way people communicate. It's the way people run things. And if you want to be updated on what's happening out there, you can't block these tools off.

Liu: I have a different opinion. I don't think there's any formal rule where I worked this summer about whether or not people use Facebook. I was actually surprised when I saw people on Facebook, and for me, that's actually a distraction to see people using it at work.

Calderon-Sitirche: I agree with that. I think it's distracting at work. I mean, I'm writing an essay and I get distracted on Facebook, so if I was at work, I think it would kind of interfere with what I'm doing.

How many of you are using services like Twitter and Facebook in your job searches? If a company did not maintain a presence on Facebook or Twitter, would it affect your perception of that company?

Liu: If a company used something like Facebook to recruit, I actually would have a bad feeling about that, unless it was a tech company or a social-media company. I wouldn't feel so positive about them being on Twitter, either. I think in the minds of our generation, Facebook is for friends, and that's kind of a barrier that I don't want companies to cross.

Siniscalco: It really takes away from the credibility of the firm, especially because we know Facebook so well -- just the connotation that comes with it; it's not necessarily this professional, reliable tool that you want to use.

Goel: I'm kind of torn as to how I feel about companies using Facebook. I think it can be a powerful marketing tool if people don't know about your firm. But for companies that I have heard of, I don't think it's a good technique because, when I go on Facebook, it's a pretty social activity. I'm going to see my friends, I'm visiting their profiles and all of those things. I don't want to see an investment bank show up on my page; I'm like, "Leave me alone," you know?

Stern: I also did not use Twitter or Facebook to find my summer internship, or for full-time. I think companies today, they really need to take time to think about what their social-media strategy is before they go out and implement something. It can't just be a reactive "Oh, everyone's on Facebook. We have to be on Facebook. Let's just get a page up and figure it out." There has to be a thought process associated with it. I think videos, in general, are especially appealing to Gen Y in particular, in different creative mediums as opposed to simple blocks of text and simple images.

For those of you who have had internships, did the experience change your expectations of what the work or office environment is like, and if so, how?

Liu: I think one thing that I thought about and heard about but didn't really understand is the importance of office politics. I generally liked the place I worked last summer, but it was probably my first serious job and I didn't understand how important that was until I got there.

 

So do you think it had a negative effect on your experience there?

Liu: It probably was. I guess these small, political things kind of irked me.

Modi: In my freshman year, I worked at a large financial firm and then I went to a start-up -- and the biggest thing that I realized, in terms of the expectations I had, and kind of why I know what I want in the future for my firm, is the sense of being valued. Because I felt like I was really used as the means to an end at the financial firm I worked at.

 

Can you give me an example?

Modi: They'll give you tasks, but not give you the bigger picture. And in terms of value, it's like, "If you clue me in on what this is being used for, maybe I could contribute some of my own thoughts and creativity, tell you what I think about it." But they don't want to hear it. They just want you to do the task. That, versus my start-up internship, where the vibe was much more, "What do you think about this? Let me know what you think about that." I really felt like I was contributing to where the start-up wanted to go as a company.

 

Did you try and reach out to them and say, "Look, can you tell me more, where it fits the big picture?" and if so, what was the reaction?

Modi: You try to, but they were just like, "Oh, I'm kind of busy right now." I found one or two people there who would actually sit down with me and explain what was happening, but the rest just kind of expected you to be a robot and just do what you were told. And I hated that.

Siniscalco: I'll speak in defense of the financial firms (laughing) because that's where I'm going. So, my very first job was at a big bank. What I really took away from that summer internship was how to relate -- how to relate with my peers, my colleagues and my boss. And that was particularly useful when I found myself in the same position as Neil. When I was given a task that was so specific, I didn't even know the name of the company I was running this spreadsheet on. And you just have to learn how to properly go and find the right person and go and ask him or her to please take five minutes and explain what I'm doing, why I'm doing it. And it took time to learn that. That's the biggest skill that I learned during my first job and that became really useful in the following jobs.

Flores: I got a little sense of, or different taste of, what teamwork meant [from my job]. And it wasn't necessarily everyone in the same room talking about an idea and bouncing it off each other. It was sort of like you work remotely and you communicate online, which turned me off a lot. You work from home, you communicate via these online platforms with your peers and then you sort of e-mail your work around, which didn't bode well with me. [I'm more comfortable with] the understanding and background of teamwork we sort of foster here at Wharton, where it's very [encouraged to] meet face-to-face when you talk about your project.

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Generally speaking, how do people here feel about telecommuting? Is this something that you guys are interested in, or do you think, "Eh, maybe not for me?"

Modi: I can speak personally to that. I did a lot of that this summer because 90 percent of the time I was telecommuting. I was in Philly and my job was in New York. And the little time I did spend in New York, a couple weeks when I was working there, I got such a better experience. Being able to sit there with the co-founders, the CEO, being able to bounce ideas back and forth and just have normal conversations. You pick up, you learn so much more. At the same time, if I had to do it, from time to time, it is useful. They have so many different kinds of technological platforms that really help foster communication.

Siniscalco: From my point of view, it would probably be a deal-breaker. If I was to be working remotely for most of the time, I would probably never take on such a job. I guess it really depends on what you are. If you're a researcher, do you really need interaction with other people? Probably not. But if you're doing a very specific job, and you're a people person, then you're going to feel miserable if you're not surrounded by other people. I can speak for Wharton students. If you go at night to the Wharton School, it's packed with students studying on their own in big common study rooms. Why? Because they just like to see somebody else next to them studying. So it's a psychological comfort that really does play a role. And the cost that you're saving by working remotely, I don't think it compensates for the decrease in efficiency that you have.

For the last question, I was thinking we could go around the room and just ask, based on your interviewing experience so far with companies, what are some things you think the companies you experienced did well, and what do you think they needed to do better?

Liu: I really liked it when I felt that the questions they asked me or the way they conducted the interview actually applied to the job. I think there are some industry practices that are archaic.

 

Such as?

Liu: For example, they'll ask a question like, "Why consulting?" I feel as if some questions are used so much that you simply give a stock answer, and maybe they don't really care. I don't think those questions are a useful way to test my knowledge.

Modi: I think the best experience I've had is to have a conversation with the person. You don't want it to be an interrogation. Instead, talk about a cool project you worked on and then you can see the thought process and how they worked through it. You can see, "OK, this guy's intelligent, or "Oh, this guy actually memorized what he worked on." I don't think firms value critical thinking enough. They have people coming in, as James said, giving stock answers. To be honest, I would want smart people who can challenge the assumptions of the task and work that I'm giving them.

Siniscalco: I completely agree. I think you feel extremely valued when you feel you've been hired, besides the minimum amount of knowledge that you need to know, because of your personality. So if you feel that they did not get to understand what kind of person you are at all, then why are they really hiring you? For me, that was a discriminating factor when I chose which direction to go in terms of choosing jobs. In cases where I felt that I either did not meet enough people from the firm, or that the interview was on a very superficial level, I just didn't feel it was a good fit for me.

Goel: I remember last semester, there was a time when I was interviewing and, after first rounds, everyone got a phone call, regardless of whether they made it to the second round or not, and the interviewer was on the phone with them for a good 20 to 30 minutes, going over, "This is what you did well; this is what you didn't do well."

In terms of what James said about stock answers, I disagree. I actually think it's important for companies to ask the standard questions like, "Why consulting?" Because, yes, there are people who memorize those answers, but if you really want to do consulting,I think the interviewer can tell that based on how you deliver the answer, and not based on what you say. I think there's a certain amount of passion that you can show when you answer that question.

Flores: One experience I had during the interview season was a really positive one because the interview was a two-way street. At the beginning, the interviewer said, "This is as much an interview for you as it is for me and our firm," and we spent some time talking about my experiences and what I wanted to do. She made an effort to really push me to ask a lot of questions.

Calderon-Sitirche: I think a lot of first-round interviews that people have mentioned are very superficial and conducted as a screening process, but that can turn off the candidates. They don't really feel that they're really getting much out of it. By comparison, I've had second-round interviews with Macy's product-development group, for example, where we were divided into teams, went to the store, analyzed some of their private labels and then had to do a presentation about it. I think [exercises like that] are much more useful.

Stern: The best practice I've observed from companies that I've interviewed with is when they execute on their word. Those who say, "We'll call you within 10 days with a decision," and call me within 10 days with a decision, I respect them. If I don't get a call, or if I have to e-mail them after 10 days, and there's a lag in the process -- that doesn't bode well for a company. 

Read More:

Attracting Generation Y

The 'Known Unknowns' Of Gen Y

Talking with Gen Y

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