They are the most technologically advanced young workforce in history. But it seems these Gen Y young hotshots are missing something rather vital from their CVs: good business etiquette.
A lack of personal skills among employees in their 20s and 30s – holding eye contact, making small talk, understanding different cultures and dressing correctly – has become a real headache for business leaders the world over.
“It’s all very well having the best technological skills in the world,” says Michael Lorrigan, the managing director of Spearhead Training, a consultancy based in Oud Metha, Dubai. “But if you don’t understand that good etiquette and the establishment of a personal relationship is important – if you don’t appreciate that first impressions count or that addressing someone in the correct manner is crucial – then that’s the difference between making a client and losing a deal.”
Strictly speaking, it’s not just Gen Y who always lack these skills.
Michael, who has been MD of Spearhead since 1998, still cringes at some of the tales of bad etiquette he’s come across.
“One woman told me how she gave her business card to a chap at a conference,” he recalls. “She looked over a few minutes later and he was using it as a tooth pick.
“Needless to say, she was horrified. I remember not long after we started out here 17 years ago, there was an American company starting up that was very much a short sleeves and open collar kind of company. [The managers] would turn up to business meetings with clients from the region looking like they were going to the beach. They didn’t last long.”
It seems that where the young generation is concerned, they might have learnt to put on a business suit, but their social skills haven’t improved – if anything they have grown worse.
One survey carried out in the UK found that 75 per cent of business leaders felt a preoccupation with email and texts was hurting the social skills needed in business. Another, carried out by British etiquette expert firm Debretts, found 90 per cent of senior-level executives believe social skills are more important than academic achievements.
One major Dubai company, meanwhile offered some feedback to Spearhead on its tendering process. Some 25 per cent of the decision-makers’ final verdict is decided by how they felt about the team and the people they were dealing with. That’s more than both company experience and price, which came in at just 20 per cent each.
It’s something Nathy Gaffney, a corporate performance consultant and leading etiquette expert, isn’t surprised by.
“In Dubai, it really is a case of being good at who you are as well as being good at what you do,” she says. “People here demand respect for their traditions and culture so it is important for organisations to empower their young workers to understand this.”
So, why exactly are these personable skills disappearing?
The sheer dominance of social media in all aspects of modern life appears to be one reason, according to our experts.
“Go to any beach in Dubai where you might see a family of four on holiday together,” says Lorrigan. “And what do you see? Quite often, they’re completely ignoring each other and tapping away on phones or iPads.
“This is supposed to be a family holiday and yet here they are completely ignoring each other. You take that kind of upbringing into the workplace and there’s no real surprise there are going to be problems. These youngsters just aren’t learning to communicate.”
The informality of family and school life appears also to be an issue.
Furthermore, Nathy says that in some cultures this is the first generation to have both parents working. “This means the family meal time is not the same and this is where a lot of charismatic and socially intelligent behaviours are learned. If there is no one talking, how do these skills get learned and developed, beyond the simple instructions of ‘use that fork’ and ‘chew with your mouth closed’?
“Modern life means a lot of rushing: ‘Quick! eat your dinner, do your homework, get in the shower, get into bed.’
“A machine-gun approach leaves no opportunity for reflection and absorption of manners when it is rush-rush all the time.”
Added to this is the pressure universities are under to churn out academic and skilled candidates while perhaps not addressing the needs of the human being as they are moving through life.
And while social media is vital for business, it brings its own set of issues because people are not talking to each other and the subtle nuances of conversation tone are lost. A text, for example, is just information – there is no sense of the body language or facial expressions behind it. So it is crucial that the written text be clear and easily understandable.
Nathy says, “These digital and tech businesses are telling me their workforce is one of multiple generations who are very good at what they do. But how are they going to up skill and up sell? For that they need to fine-tune among other things, their email-writing skills.” She offers a checklist for business emails below.
In the end, as we hurtle to the future, going back to the past and keeping in mind the basics of traditional etiquette are what will ensure that our business succeeds.