The Y question

The arrival in the workplace of technologically switched-on members of Generation Y is a welcome development for employers – but the difference between their work styles and those of older generations presents its own set of challenges.

The Y questionMembers of Generation Y – also known as the Millennials and defined by ‘generational scholars’ as people born in or after 1980 – have arrived in the workplace, and the first wave of legal issues arising from the differences between their work styles and those of other, older generations are now emerging.

These attitudinal and behavioural differences are creating tensions in the workplace, revolving primarily around data security and privacy, ownership of intellectual property, employer liability for employees’ misuse of technology, and discrimination based on age. Organisations should seek to resolve these tensions to reduce or avoid potential legal risks.

Net babies
Although Millennials currently make up only approximately 10 per cent of the workforce, they are the fastest-growing age segment in the office. They grew up with the internet, and have become accustomed to using technology that is increasingly powerful and sophisticated.

They use technology 24/7 to stay connected, and often their communication methods – SMS, IM – and very informal communication style differ from the methods and style of some of their older colleagues. There is also evidence to suggest that they are less likely to abide by information technology/technology use policies.

For example, they are more likely to use whatever application, technology or device they want, regardless of what company policy says. Also, they won’t just use company-issued devices, but will also use personal PCs, USB devices and smartphones.

They are more likely to download software at work for personal use. Finally, they blog, and their notions of personal privacy are influenced by their use of social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Bebo.

For example, the privacy features on such sites that allow account holders to determine who gets access to difference sections of the page may give rise to an expectation that access to other information posted on the internet can be similarly limited.

Data security
These practices present numerous potential legal risks to organisations. For example, the use of personal devices at work increases associated data security and privacy risks/breaches, which are all too often in the news these days.

The ease with which material can be located on the internet and copied has blurred the boundaries of the concepts of the ownership of intellectual property and plagiarism. The speed and informality of communications increases the risk of inappropriate workplace communications, for which organisations may well be liable. Also, unjustified stereotyping of, and by, Millennials may also give rise to potential age discrimination issues.

As a first port of call, organisations may need to adapt policies to attract and/or retain younger generations. For example, when recruiting, they may decide to participate in virtual job fairs using ‘avatars’ to attract applications from Millennials.

However, organisations should be wary of changing their recruiting practices to take into account some aspects of the Millennials’ use of technology – conducting background checks through the internet, for example, through blogs, FaceBook, MySpace or bebo is a potential minefield.

Organisations should generally avoid making hiring decisions based on information obtained through such sources – which may reveal an applicant’s race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, family status, religion, physical health or other protected ground under existing discrimination legislation – as, if the hiring decision is unfavourable and it is shown they used such sources, they may then be faced with proving that the decision was not discriminatory as the information obtained from the internet was not taken into account.

Prudent policies
Organisations should also ensure that they have a blogging policy in place. Such a policy should establish clear guidelines as to what is acceptable blogging behaviour and remind employees that other company policies can apply to their activities outside the office when it affects the organisation – and also of the potential legal consequences of blogging both to the employee and the organisation.

While recognising the opportunities that the Millennials’ work styles – and, in particular, their desire to be connected 24/7 – may present, prudent organisations must also address the risks to which these work styles give rise.

At a minimum, organisations should review their policies and practices to address the issues raised by the Millennials’ different work styles and ensure that these policies are properly implemented.

They should also train entry-level employees – who will be predominantly be Millennials – specifically on those policies and about the realities of data security and privacy and the avoidance of discrimination in the modern workplace.

Raising awareness of the differences between the generations, and ensuring both that Millennials understand the legitimate business concerns of older generations and that Millennials are able to voice any concerns that they are not understood by older generations, should also reduce the risks of generational conflict.

Ann Bevitt is a partner and head of employment at Morrison & Foerster