Comrade or Competitor? Set the Tone When Onboarding

A few years ago, I worked with a person who is nine years younger than me, placing her firmly in the Millennial generation. We seemed to get along well, but something kept happening that I found unfriendly and cutthroat: Whenever she found a typo on the Website I managed, she sent an e-mail alerting me of it, while also “ccing” my boss and the head of our department. Since we got along well, I assumed it was just her way of making sure she got credit for finding typos. A more sinister interpretation would be that she was trying to undercut me.

I thought of this former colleague of mine when I saw a study by LinkedIn about Millennial behavior in the workplace compared to other generations. Some 68 percent of Millennials said they would sacrifice a friend for a promotion, while 62 percent of Baby Boomers said they would never consider it. Was my colleague following this pattern of elevating herself at my expense?

Another thing she did that this study says is typical of her generation is try to draw me into conversations about my salary versus hers. I always resisted, realizing what a bad idea this would be—a great way to foster resentment and discomfort, and create problems for our department head. According to the LinkedIn study: Some “67 percent of Millennials are likely to share personal details, including salary, relationships, and family issues with co-workers, compared to only about one-third of Baby Boomers.”

In addition, my former co-worker had the sense of entitlement that is fairly or unfairly ascribed to the Millennial generation. When we were on a walk during lunch one day, she confided to me that she planned to look for a new job in six months because she hadn’t gotten the salary she wanted and didn’t see enough opportunity for fast advancement. She didn’t directly talk about wanting to advance fast, but I got a sense that she wanted what she wanted, and fast.

These qualities are not necessarily a negative thing, if channeled properly. For instance, an aggressive, competitive spirit can make a person into a real go-getter for a company, and can be a good complement to more passive co-workers. The problem arises when the person with these stereotypical Millennial characteristics is not trained to aid, rather than thwart, co-workers and managers. My old friend was not given a sense when she joined the company that we’re all in it together, all working toward the same goal. Instead of understanding the company’s culture as one of camaraderie, she saw competition and a fight for resources. It seems like an onboarding program, or even just an introductory meeting with her manager, explaining that she would be judged by the performance of the group, as well as her own performance, was needed.

She also could have used help with her approach to working with others. After she left, our department head said he heard from a lot of people within the company who said they were glad she was gone. In fact, this inability to work with others in a gracious manner is what led to the end of my friendship with her. One day, out of the blue, she came up to my desk and dropped a paper in front of me. “What is this?” I asked.

“Edit it,” she responded.

This wouldn’t be a good approach for a manager to take, but keep in mind this co-worker was no manager of mine, or anyone else’s. She was a nearly entry-level Marketing department employee. I naturally didn’t take kindly to this. I snapped at her and turned away. She never spoke to me again except when absolutely necessary.

It seems silly, but do you think new employees need to be shown the right and wrong way to interact with co-workers through role-play exercises? I would think these are skills that should be mastered in elementary school as children learn to work and play with classmates, but maybe not.

It amazes me how many people you come across in the workplace who don’t pick up on social and nonverbal cues. They don’t instinctively know the best way to approach and interact with others. It’s unfortunate that it’s necessary, but onboarding programs may need to spell out how cooperative versus how competitive the company expects employees to be with one another, and what constitutes respectful versus dictatorial behavior.

Does your onboarding program include tutorials and/or role-play exercises on how to interact with colleagues and managers? How do you set the tone for workplace relationships?