Recruiting and Managing the ‘Why?’ Generation:
Gen Y

By Kathryn Yeaton

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APRIL 2008 - The accounting profession is experiencing new cultural challenges when it comes to addressing “Generation Y”—the technology-savvy, multitasking individuals who are at the age where they recently entered high school, college, or the workforce. These challenges begin with efforts to recruit students into collegiate accounting programs. The numerous innovative programs that have been used to recruit the best and the brightest from this generation, starting in high school, have largely been successful. A 2005 AICPA report indicated that enrollment in accounting programs increased 19% during the period 2000–2004 (The Supply of Accounting Graduates and Demand for Public Accounting Recruits for 2004, 2005).

While the number of accounting majors has increased, recruiting and retaining these individuals remains a highly competitive process. To attract the most-qualified graduates, employers need to change their approach. For example, a 2007 survey of the AICPA’s Private Companies Practice Section (PCPS) indicated that partners identified compensation as the motivation behind a recruit’s decision to join and stay with an organization; however, recruits identified the opportunity to advance as their primary motivator (The PCPS Top Talent Study: Gaining a Strategic Advantage in Recruiting and Retention).

In this highly competitive, shifting environment, what can CPA firms do in the short term as they attempt to attract and hire this newest generation of accountants? How will this generation’s characteristics impact the management of accounting organizations? The following examination of Generation Y provides insights for recruiting and managing these young accountants.

Understanding Generation Y

Individuals within any generation have different traits, but the shared experiences of its members impact certain attitudes and perspectives across the group. For example, the political environment, the business environment, and the cultural environment represent some of the broad national trends that influence attitudes and perspectives. Technological advances also play a significant role in shaping a generation.

The term Generation Y has been used to describe individuals born between approximately 1979 and 1994. As a result, the current ages of Gen Y range from 14 to 29. This newest generation of workers is larger than its predecessor and is nearly as large as the baby boomer generation. Gen Yers tend to have a strong sense of morality and civic-mindedness. They are more ethnically diverse than previous generations, and nearly one-third of them have been raised in single-parent households. Because they are technologically savvy and have grown up using personal computers, Gen Yers are referred to as “digital natives.” They are multitaskers and tend to be comfortable working in groups or in collaborative settings. This generation values intelligence and education. They have high self-esteem and are very confident. While they are goal- and achievement-oriented, they are not overly loyal to any organization and they “want a life.”

Recruiting Generation Y: Strategies for Accounting Organizations

The characteristics of Gen Y require an adjustment in focus and perspective as accounting organizations begin recruiting these students. Innovative recruiting techniques are needed to engage this latest cultural shift. In a competitive recruiting environment, employers must understand and adapt to these trends to ensure that they are perceived as a desirable place to pursue a career (see the Exhibit for a summary of the following characteristics and recruitment and retention strategies).

Strong sense of morality: Why? Because Gen Y tends to have a strong sense of morality and civic-mindedness, they are looking for careers with social significance. Related to this trait is the constant questioning of “Why?” Why is this important? Why do we need to know this information? Why do we perform these functions? In order to recruit these individuals, accounting firms need to demonstrate the significance of the position and the role the individual will fulfill within the organization. The accounting profession must ensure that Gen Y understands the importance of the accounting information and the attest function to the proper performance of capital markets.

Goal- and achievement-oriented. Computer games provide seemingly endless goals, with immediate feedback when a player successfully moves on to the next level. This generation has grown up playing computer games, so they are familiar with consistently achieving goals in order to move forward. Experiences such as these have made this generation exceptionally goal- and achievement-oriented. They tend to desire these types of experiences in the work environment as well. As mentioned previously, the recent PCPS survey indicates that the opportunity to advance is their primary motivation to join and stay with an organization. Opportunities to advance should be communicated explicitly with potential recruits during the recruiting process.

Digital natives. Because Gen Y has grown up with computers, they are referred to as digital natives. They view computers as merely a part of life. Computer technology and computer games are not only pastimes, but learning tools as well. The Internet opens the world up to them 24 hours a day, seven days a week. As a result, Gen Yers expect a strong web presence and, when evaluating a potential employer, frequently examine an organization’s website as the primary source of information about the entity. They evaluate websites not merely on the information content of the site but on the site’s quality as well. For example, facing declining accounting enrollments in the early 2000s, the AICPA launched in an effort to attract the next generation of accountants. This website presents the opportunities of the CPA profession, using a fun, interactive approach. Included are business simulation games and other interactive components as well as a student magazine, and scholarship and internship information. The features have inspired more than 1 million students to visit and use the website in recent years (see

This emphasis on an online presence and technology-based recruitment may prove equally successful for accounting firms attempting to employ Gen Y. For example, PricewaterhouseCoopers’ website has a section specifically designed for campus job candidates, to attract potential employees. This site includes profiles and interviews with current “hip” employees describing their exciting jobs and great benefits, as well as information on how PricewaterhouseCoopers encourages and accommodates its employees’ volunteer work and community service. Without prompting, the author’s students often talk about information they have read on firm websites about jobs and employment, indicating they are accessing and making use of information provided by the firms. Efforts such as these will likely expand as more firms recognize the importance of a strong Internet presence for potential recruits and place increased emphasis on website development and maintenance.

Value intelligence and innovation. Gen Yers do not give respect based merely upon age, experience, or even organizational “authority.” They value intelligence and genuine contributions to the organization. They prize innovative thinking and ingenuity. Consequently, highlighting the creative and productive aspects of a position to a job applicant is crucial. Employers must emphasize challenges, growth opportunities, and the contributions employees can make to the organization. Unfortunately, one of the most difficult, yet most important, aspects of recruiting is describing to applicants the hierarchy of the organization and the progression up the organizational ladder. This will require explaining the insights gained through experience within the organization, while not dismissing the value the recruit brings to the organization. This is necessary because the traditional job progression will often be viewed as slow and pedantic. Recruits will appreciate a collegial atmosphere and honest dialogue.

Value work/family balance. Gen Yers tend to seek a balance between work and family and are motivated by not only salary but also benefits and schedule flexibility. Having a flexible work schedule is important because Gen Y wants a life outside of work. Students frequently stop by the author’s office to discuss job offers and the associated benefits offered by each organization. The discussions often cover what each student’s lifestyle working for various organizations may potentially be like. This generation is seeking something beyond an all-consuming career; they want time to build and maintain personal relationships. Emphasizing these job attributes to potential employees will appeal to their need to have a life outside of work.

Multitaskers. The author once asked a campus recruiter to describe the worst faux pas she ever witnessed by a potential candidate. She described an interview in which the candidate’s cellphone rang … and the candidate took the call! Multitasking is a way of life for this generation. During their waking hours, they are constantly bombarded by technology, yet, in many cases, appropriate cellphone etiquette has never been taught, or even discussed. It is the author’s perception that accounting majors tend to be somewhat more aware and conscientious about appropriate behavior and are eager to learn. A quick “Do you need to turn off your cellphone?” should be enough to avoid an unwanted interruption during an interview or office visit.

Group work and collaboration. Gen Y has been educated during a period when group projects have been intertwined throughout the curriculum from the time they were in elementary school. As a result, most have developed group skills and are adept at accomplishing tasks while working in teams. In fact, the author’s high-school-age Gen Y son is already quite proficient at identifying peers with the appropriate skill set for team projects and is very articulate about the types of people with whom he works well and those with whom he struggles. These skills are beneficial for accountants, and can be evaluated during the recruitment process by watching potential hires performing informal team-building exercises.

Managing Gen Y: Strategies for Accounting Managers

The accounting profession is uniquely positioned to benefit from the skill sets and attitudes that Gen Y brings to the workplace. Yet, while these individuals are immensely talented, there are aspects to the cultural shift that will present new challenges to accounting managers. Consequently, just as approaches to recruiting will need to adapt to this new generation, management techniques will also need to adapt.

Explain the importance of tasks and projects. Getting the buy-in of Gen Y employees will require that managers explain the importance of the “whys.” Telling these employees “That’s the way we’ve always done it” will not satisfy them. They want to understand the genuine need to perform functions or tasks. While this constant questioning of authority may sometimes prove challenging or frustrating to employers and managers, these employees’ fresh perspectives should bring new ideas to organizations and the profession.

Clearly delineate expectations. Gen Y desires to be valued based on their intelligence and contributions to the organization. They tend to be hard workers who are motivated by clearly defined goals. While these are attributes that are highly useful for employers, they will require clear dialogue with new employees. These individuals push for clearly defined parameters without ambiguity. Obviously, this will not always be an option in a work environment, because ambiguity is sometimes unavoidable in a complex organization. Firms should consider initiating a management development program or mentoring program to train and encourage talented staff. Such programs recognize achievement and potential without necessarily requiring extensive organizational resources. An open, collegial dialogue about career progression will establish an environment of mutual respect and understanding.

Provide employee feedback. Because Gen Yers are used to playing computer games with immediate feedback on their decisions, they will want immediate feedback on their work performance as well. Similarly, because computer games allow progression to higher levels as soon as “proficiency” at lower levels is demonstrated, these employees will also seek job success and recognition right away. One commentator (Jean M. Twenge, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before, 2006) suggests that employers will need to explain that “success and privileges will not happen overnight” and acknowledge how frustrating it is but “it’s the way business works.”

This is why an accounting firm should define the normal progression during the recruiting process. The desire for immediate feedback will nonetheless require some extra effort in the early days of a new employee’s career. An open dialogue will, again, allow new employees to grow and feel valued. Employers should emphasize the collegial nature of the work environment.

Embrace technological innovation. As businesses increasingly use technology, new employees will be expected to have the expertise to handle the challenges. In fact, Gen Yers’ level of comfort and expertise will provide additional resources with which to build a company’s technological capabilities. Their prowess with newer technologies may provide new opportunities or efficiencies. For example, instant messaging may become an increasingly useful tool within the work environment by allowing employees to communicate about work-related issues in virtual real time. Employers should encourage Gen Y employees to use innovative computer technologies to make the workplace more efficient.

Some Gen Yers treat e-mail communications with the same informality as instant messaging or text messaging. This means that e-mails may be filled with numerous abbreviations and poor spelling. An employer may need to explicitly communicate the appropriate e-mail style and etiquette to new hires.

Explain criticisms. Gen Y has been educated in school environments designed to build high self-esteem. As a result, Gen Yers tend to have a great deal of confidence and be quite optimistic. They have high expectations about their future and are sometimes unaware of their own limitations. Often students have not experienced criticism in an educational environment prior to college and thus must develop the ability to accept and synthesize constructive comments in a work environment.

As a result of their previous educational experiences, Gen Y employees initially tend to have trouble accepting responsibility for shortcomings or failures in their work and look outward for a potential cause. Once hired, this may require awareness and concerted effort within the organization to ensure that assignments are framed clearly and criticism is structured constructively. In fact, Twenge suggests that employers:

[B]egin with something positive and explain the reason behind your criticism. Do not be surprised if you encounter defensiveness. Things will go better if you can take that in stride and not get defensive in return; just explain why it’s wrong and move on. Over time, young employees will grow more accustomed to criticism; it might just take longer since they are not as familiar with it.

An inclusive, collaborative style of management will help ease this transition.

Consider flexible schedules. Additionally, because Gen Yers desire a balance between work and family life, organizations should consider adding increased flexibility to work schedules as well as options such as working from home. Efforts should be made to minimize excessive overtime and extended travel.

Describe limitations on multitasking. Gen Y has grown up in an environment in which they can instant-message multiple friends at the same time, play a computer game when the online “conversation” slows down, and text message at any time of the day. They are adept at handling multiple tasks simultaneously. This ability should prove useful in a work environment which requires the capacity to multitask. While Gen Yers handle simultaneous multiple tasks very well, there are times when they need explicit instructions to focus on only one task. In addition, an employer’s rules concerning the use of computers,
cell phones, and PDAs during work hours should be explicitly described.

Encourage collaboration. Managers should use Gen Y’s ability to function within a group by encouraging collaboration when appropriate. Clearly, some tasks within accounting firms do not and should not require collaboration, but there is room for innovation. Consider reorganizing tasks to allow collaborative efforts and novel approaches to projects.

The Transition from New Hires to Leaders

Gen Y has numerous positive attributes and skills. Gen Yers are intellectually curious and do not accept the status quo. They tend to question current practices and ask whether there is a better approach. An inclusive management style works well with this generation. These employees will look for ways to streamline or improve tasks and projects. They have the technological skills to incorporate current trends and innovative technologies into accounting departments or industries. Gen Y works hard and, if properly motivated and recognized, will provide the organizational and professional leadership to move the accounting profession into the 21st century in a significant and meaningful way.

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Kathryn Yeaton, PhD, CPA, is an assistant professor of accounting at Ramapo College of New Jersey, Mahwah, N.J. She would like to thank her three Gen Y children and their friends.




















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