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With more Gen Zers in the workplace, how HR can regain the lost art of in-office etiquette

Dan Kaplan
Dan Kaplan
Dan Kaplan is a Senior Client Partner for Korn Ferry's CHRO practice. He is based in Korn Ferry's New York office. Kaplan earned a bachelor's degree from Rutgers University. He is a member of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society's Business Advisory Council and fundraises for several non-profit organizations.

During the pandemic, students were sequestered to their kitchen tables instead of making life-long friends in classes, dorms and fraternity parties.

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Then came those first jobs. Instead of in-person office meet and greets, business lunches and “get-to-know-you” happy hours, those new employees spent their time in video conference meetings.

But now, working exclusively from home is beginning to be less common as employers are asking that workers return to the office, at least part-time. This poses a new dilemma for HR leaders as they must navigate a tremendous gap in one key area of excelling in the business world: how employees dress, talk and act in the office.

A critical way this plays out is navigating generational differences. Gen Z workers have come of age in an entirely different, often more relaxed atmosphere. This shows itself in many ways, such as casual wear in the office or a heavy reliance on communicating via messaging on their phone instead of face-to-face. This can be perceived by more mature workers as showing a lack of engagement—or even being downright rude.

Differences also surface relating to when and where employees work. While employees who have been in the workplace for some time may be used to a typical 9-to-5 day, newer workers may break up the day between work and recreational time. They may take off a couple hours in the middle of the day, but they’ll make up for it by completing tasks later in the evening.

This can pose some real issues for HR professionals as they navigate the differences and try to set expectations on proper office etiquette. This isn’t to say one way of working is better, it just creates a need for greater understanding of the way people work.

Greater communication can help with office etiquette

HR can help foster tolerance by facilitating greater communication among employees. One tactic may be to host guided conversations where people of different ages can discuss what matters to them in the workplace and how they can be the most effective.

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See also: Gen Z is taking over the workplace: 5 things HR needs to know

This isn’t to say that HR should adopt an “anything goes” mentality. As part of the onboarding process, there should be a clear set of protocols that workers should follow, such as being on time, being professional in how they talk to one another and staying off their phones when they are in meetings.

One thing to note is that employees often follow the lead of their managers—everything from imitating their email tones to gossiping behind a co-worker’s back. It’s critical that HR is very clear in the standards it expects from its managers to create a healthy, happy culture for everyone.