More women in the corporate ranks, multiple generations in the workforce and the bust- and-boom economic cycle are among recent trends that are having a profound effect on today’s workplace.  How these trends impact employee-employer relations is the focus Grace Lemmon’s research.  In the Q&A below, the DePaul assistant professor of management and alumna discusses what her studies reveal about today’s evolving workforce.

Q: Your research often focuses on psychological contracts in the workplace, or what employees believe they are owed, and, in return, owe their organizations.  What has your research shown about how these contracts have changed in recent years?

Lemmon: There are two trends that impact the modern psychological contract.  One trend stems from the broader historical transition about what work means to the typical higher-skill, higher-wage employee, and the other trend is a product of the more recent economic cycle. 

From a historical perspective, today’s psychological contract is far more short-term in nature.  That is, both the employer and employee anticipate a relationship marked by short-term gain.  For the employee, that gain is realized through acquiring new or novel on-the-job knowledge, education, skills and experiences—collectively known as human capital. Employees generally desire to soak up as much human capital as possible from their current employer in order to either leverage that capital into more favorable employment terms (e.g., bonus or promotion) or to find a better position elsewhere.  Because organizations cannot provide all things to all employees, this choice leads to employees moving jobs far more often than in the past. 

Notably—and perhaps counter-intuitively given that the general consensus that turnover is bad for business – the employer can benefit from the modern psychological contract, too. Employers that become adept at capitalizing on the multi-faceted human capital that an employee brings to his or her job are able to build a more nimble, intelligent workforce. There are, of course, limits to this benefit, largely centered on (a) finding a “sweet spot” of employment tenure that an employee needs to invest in order for both parties to realize gains, and (b) a contingency based on an employee’s ability to learn and apply new knowledge. 

Q: How does the recent economic cycle affect this psychological contract?

The modern psychological contract is also altered as a result of the economic boom, bust, and (smaller) boom that have dominated the 2000s to date.  This particularly affects younger generations, which I’ve blogged about. From what I have observed, for a higher-skilled, higher-waged worker, the relatively quick boom-bust cycle coupled with a lack of historically available job security (e.g., unions; well-funded pensions) creates a more general psychological trauma:  basic security (monetary) is not guaranteed. 

This means that younger employees engage in a psychological contract with far more hesitation.  They are less willing to promise more than expected to their employer unless the employer can immediately and transparently return that promise. For example, workers may be unwilling to work overtime unless there is a very specific policy about how to track and compensate those who put in extra hours.  You can imagine how employee trepidation in developing a more extensive psychological contract limits potential gains for both parties.  The trust simply isn’t there.

Q: There has been a lot of media coverage and debate about what some are calling the “opt-out” revolution among women professionals and how this contributes to the underrepresentation of women in top management.  What does your research reveal about this issue?

In short:  it’s less of an “opt-out” and more of a “push-out.”  At the same time, the effect is far less insidious than this contrast makes it seem. 

What my research team has found is that managers – notably, both male and female managers – tend to assume that women have more family-work conflict than men.  This assumption stems largely from the reality that women take on more household responsibilities than their male counterparts, and that because of this, are less capable of keeping family demands from affecting their work. 

Because of this assumption, women are not offered high-visibility assignments and career encouragement, nor do their managers feel that they fit with the organization.  Ultimately, this makes managers view women as less promotable.  Moreover, because the manager is signaling to the women that they are less promotable, women can internalize this message, which can result in women, themselves, having weakened aspirations toward managerial positions.  The frustrating conclusion to this research is that it is the perceptions – not abilities, not knowledge, not education – that are the catalyst for the “push-out.”

Q:  You teach, and have written, about the millennial generation in the workforce. What should employers understand about what motivates them?

At their core, millennials are just like every other employee: choose the right carrot and quality work you shall receive. The trick for employers, however, is to find an appropriate carrot. 

Generally, I recommend that employers should see what is traditionally perceived as millennials’ weaknesses as an opportunity for motivation.  Let me provide some examples. A common refrain about millennials is that they expect a lot of benefits or resources as soon as they walk in the door, which is both a conceit and a signal of entitlement – not good traits.  But employers, who are loathe to provide a lot of benefits up front (e.g., a higher salary; more flextime; immediate vesting of retirement funds) because of the job-hopping ways of today’s workforce, don’t necessarily have to provide these things. 

Instead, employers can clearly state what a millennial employee needs to do to achieve such benefits.  This plays into basic motivational theories that find that the crux of motivation is to (1) set a goal and (2) communicate clearly the behavior-consequence cycles that put an employee on the path toward achieving that goal.  Millennials may be disappointed to not receive what they desire immediately, but will be appreciative of both the employer’s acknowledgement that their desires are within reach and the employer’s transparency about how to attain them. 

Another critique of millennials is that they seek meaning in their jobs, and are unwilling to settle for jobs that cannot provide such. Their idiosyncratic definitions of “meaning” can stifle an employer’s ability to imbue each and every job with that attribute.  However this provides a great opportunity for an employer to let an employee craft some of his or her responsibilities and duties.   

For example, I had a civic-minded former student who was employed as a special events planner.  He ultimately wanted to be a community organizer, but joined a special events firm to gain experience in planning group events.  The employer actively discussed the student’s career path, and allowed him to devote 10 percent of his working hours to special events focused on community issues, and offered those events to the community at a discounted rated. 

The student, then, gained experience both in event planning and community-based public relations.  The employer also benefited insofar as the organization quickly became known in the local area as an event planner that knew the specifications and quirks of event planning for a community-based organization.

Q: What made you decide to teach at DePaul? 

I respect and appreciate DePaul’s admission strategy:  to offer an opportunity to any prospective student who demonstrates an ability and eagerness to learn.  While DePaul certainly has admissions standards, it doesn’t let a single piece of information solely determine who is admitted to the school.  This results in a culture that celebrates the diversity of students, including an understanding of the breadth of knowledge and experiences that a student can offer the world at large, attention to personal student strengths and weaknesses, and a general acknowledgement that we can all bring something unique to the table.   

Q: How does being an alumna of the business school give you a different perspective on teaching here?

My answer to this question builds on the previous one – namely, I feel that I can better guide classroom interaction and discussion because I’ve learned in a classroom with great diversity in background.  I feel that I can create a classroom environment where different experiences are valued and appreciated, and use that open communication among students as a springboard for learning.