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Bullying

Gen Z and Workplace Bullying, Ghosting, and Cancel Culture

New survey data sheds light on emerging issues in the workplace.

Key points

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated changes in the workplace, significantly impacting Generation Z or "Zoomers."
  • Lower tolerance for bullying and a greater tendency to ghost makes it more likely for Gen Z'ers to change jobs easily.
  • Dealing with interpersonal problems by "canceling" others makes it harder to build resilient, productive work groups.

This post was written by Grant H. Brenner, James R. DellaNeve, and Santor Nishizaki.

No, not everyone under 40 is a Millennial. Generation Z (born after approximately 1995) will make up 27 percent of the workforce by 2025 and is now entering (or exiting) your office at increasing numbers. One of the most common comments we (Nishizaki and DellaNeve) receive when speaking about Generation Z to leadership teams is, “Are you telling me there’s another generation already? We’re finally getting used to Millennials!” Yes, Gen Z, or Zoomers, are like Millennials, "digital natives" (born with the internet at their fingertips), but with significantly different characteristics, wants, and needs.

Generation Z amplifies trends first seen with Millennials, growing up three years slower, working less (18 percent) than Millennials (27 percent) and Gen X’ers (41 percent) during their teens. This means that when they enter the workforce after college, they are not as experienced, likely to require more on-the-job training and mentoring. They learn to relate differently, with less in-person experience not just in the workplace, but also within families and with peers. The consequences of this shift in development to a less relationship-oriented process are yet to be fully understood but are certain to be relevant.

In spite of (or perhaps because of) Gen Z’ers’ online upbringing, they reported preferring to meet with their coworkers and direct supervisors in person multiple times per day. Our study found that 49 percent of the Gen Z’ers became more anxious and depressed while working remotely, and 82 percent would consider working 100 percent remotely out of state, if permitted.

The tension between the need for greater support coupled with the desire to work remotely, highlighted in Working with Gen Z: A Handbook to Recruit, Retain, and Reimagine the Future Workforce after COVID-19, creates challenges in the work-from-home environment precipitated by the pandemic.

Ghosting, Bullying, and Cancel Culture

Seventy-eight percent of Gen Z’ers surveyed showed concern about workplace bullying. In addition to bullying, Nishizaki and DellaNeve found that HR professionals reported “ghosting” was disturbingly common. Abruptly disappearing from communication, not to mention simply not showing up for work without a word or response to inquiries, disrupts workflow and leaves others upset and confused. This may be a carry-over from personal to professional relationships, given how much more time we are spending online, especially among younger generations.

Surveying Gen Z’ers about ghosting, therefore, made sense, showing the scope of this growing concern:

  • “No show” for interview: 17 percent
  • “No show” for the first day of work: 15 percent
  • Quit without notice: 11 percent
  • Ghosted coworkers: 6 percent
  • Never ghosted employers and coworkers: 51 percent

What about “cancel culture” among Zoomers?1 We found that 19 percent have attempted to or “canceled” someone, and 14 percent said that someone else has attempted to or cancelled them. Even though the majority said that they’ve never tried to cancel someone, it was notable that almost 1 in 5 have succeeded in cancelling someone. It is important to track this trend over time.

Psychological considerations for Gen Z in the workplace

Bullying, ghosting, and cancel culture are very different from one another. At the same time, we might ask what they have in common. While they are not exactly different sides of the phenomenon, they all involve disruptive relationship behavior on both granular and societal levels. Specifically, bullying, ghosting, and cancellation speak to underlying attachment insecurity. Disorganized attachment in a form of insecure attachment characterized by chaotic shifting from being overly anxious or preoccupied in relationships to being withdrawn or dismissive, to being fearful or threatened—and sometimes being more secure, safe, and trusting.

Speculatively, a significant subset of Gen Z’ers appear to exhibit a disorganized attachment in relation to professional environments—feeling insecure, not knowing how to get developmental needs met, they appear to be self-contradictory, seeking both to be left alone and tended to with exquisite responsiveness. Put another way, Gen Z'ers may have room for development of their relationship with work, between their personal identity and emerging professional identity, as earlier experiences may have failed to prepare them adequately.2

At the same time, Gen Z’ers are arguably wiser than older generations in key ways. They are more social justice-oriented, more aware of and aligned against issues like bullying, racism, harassment, bias, and climate change, and less accepting of society's tolerance of these issues. They may have learned in school, public education programs, and peer groups to be less accepting of mistreatment, expecting those around them to change their behaviors while desiring systemic change.3

Building a Corporate Culture Attractive to Gen Z

We are currently witnessing “The Great Resignation” (or perhaps more accurately “The Great Churn”) as employees are considering switching employers at record numbers, partially due to giving up the opportunity to work remotely part/full-time (49 percent of Millennial and Gen Z workers said they would consider quitting if they can’t continue to work remotely). Couple this with concerns about declining mental health during the pandemic and generally rising rates of anxiety and depression among young people, and it's evident that a reboot may be needed.

Building on suggestions in our recent post, useful considerations for managers and executives include:

  • The number one thing Gen Z’ers need from other generations at work is to be open-minded.
  • Offer training on interpersonal skills for employees fresh out of college (a study in the Society for Human Resource Management found that 55 percent of employers said that it was very or somewhat difficult to find college grads with interpersonal skills).
  • Such on-the-job training may include a focus on building empathic attunement, learning conflict resolution, and generally helping staff and managers collaborate more effectively through mutual understanding and tolerance of distressing interpersonal situations, rather than relying on conflict avoidant strategies like ghosting or hostile responses including bullying.
  • Train supervisors on how to support employees who are dealing with mental health challenges—Gen Z’ers are listed as the most “stressed” generation during the pandemic. One study found that “40 percent of global employees said that no one at their company had asked them if they were doing OK—and those respondents were 38 percent more likely than others to say that their mental health had declined since the outbreak.”
  • Continually gain a pulse of all employees on how they prefer to work (remote, hybrid, or in-person), communicate, and be supported by their leaders. This kind of "high-touch" work model mirrors a healthy family environment with firm, clear, and supportive parental figures.

Managers and executives will benefit from increasing their understanding of psychology and human development. As society becomes more complex and diverse, family structures take on non-conventional forms, and younger generations enter the workforce, professional environments are called upon to adapt, working collaboratively with employees to create a generative, stable work environment. Challenges such as ghosting and cancellation culture are emerging, whereas others like bullying and harassment are more chronic.

Building individual resilience and learning to weather interpersonal difficulties in the workplace, coupled with responsive systemic changes in the work environment itself, are likely to restore stability and productivity alongside employee satisfaction. Developing a "culture of communication," learning to talk through problems rather than withdraw or lash out, supports collaboration, building the foundation for an evolving professional environment.

References

1. Cancel culture is defined as “the popular practice of withdrawing support for (canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive… [and] generally discussed as being performed on social media in the form of group shaming.”

2. If development is delayed or insufficient for Gen Z’ers within their families of origin and among their peer groups, we’d expect this to lead to developmental deficits extending into adulthood. Indeed, this is one way to understand the survey findings from Nishizaki and DellaNeve, though further research would be required to determine whether disorganized or insecure attachment in professional environments if a hidden factor.

3. Take bullying, for example. Older generations may see bullying as something to be ignored on an individual level – this may work because bullies will move on to the next target but overall is permissive as bullies are tolerated, or even succeed, while moving on to targets who won’t push back or speak up. If Gen Z’ers believe that the workplace (and society in general) ought to be preventing bullying, but the workplace still has an old-school "tough it out" attitude, there is a mismatch. This will affect both individual work satisfaction, confuse employee-supervisee relations, and potentially create systemic and legal issues.

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