NOT ONE EMPLOYEE at Barnett Ellman , a three-year-old public relations firm in Beverly Hills, is over the age of 30. In fact, the company’s co-founders, Tyler L. Barnett and Jason Ellman, are just 25 and 26, respectively.
While some people would say age is just a number, Barnett and Ellman would beg to differ. Recently, an account executive at the firm started calling Barnett”buddy” in front of other employees.”All of a sudden, it was ‘buddy’ this and ‘buddy’ that… It made me very uncomfortable,” he says.”I’m not her buddy; I’m her boss.”
While it’s important to nurture camaraderie, being too friendly on the job can erode an employer’s authority and make it more difficult to get work done, says Christopher J. Collins, an associate professor of human-resource studies at Cornell University.”The deeper that social connection is, the harder it becomes to make business decisions such as cutting costs and laying off workers,” he says.”You become trapped in the ‘friend’ dynamic.”
The dynamic gets even trickier when the employee or client a young executive is working with is much older. Barnett constantly gets asked his age by older clients. While he learned to follow up the question with a light-hearted quip about knowing a good plastic surgeon,”it does get frustrating,” he says.”They want to quantify my experience via my age.”
To help overcome these hurdles, here are five ways young entrepreneurs can gain their employees’ and their clients’ respect:
Beverly Hills public relations firm co-founder, Tyler Barnett (pictured center), with his under 30 staff.
Establish workplace guidelines
Make your expectations clear to employees early on, says Collins.”As in most business and management issues, it comes down to having a clear management discussion with employees,” he says. And “it doesn’t hurt to repeat this [step] multiple times.” Also, put the employees’ duties and other guidelines in writing. That way, if some sort of impropriety arises, there will be no question about where you stand, says Collins.
Limit arbitrary feedback and do away with random performance measures like picking and choosing when to reward employees for a job well done, says Jeffrey Summer, a principal in the talent management practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers in New York. Feedback is obviously important, as employees need to gauge their work and progress within a company. However, when exchanges come infrequently or without any muscle behind them, the sentiment gets lost. Instead, install specific performance measurements like project milestones and performance rewards like bonuses. Also make sure to provide feedback in formal settings such as monthly or annual meetings.
Entrepreneurs tend to know a lot about a particular industry or a specific technology, but often fall short when it comes to their knowledge of managing people. For these owners, bringing in some outside help can do wonders for boosting employee morale and keeping them engaged, says Ray Friedman, a management professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. A mentor, for instance, a former boss or a fellow entrepreneur, who has experience managing employees can teach business owners the ins and outs of communicating with the staff. Or, for more dire cases in which employees aren’t following directions or they’re paying little attention to guidelines, hiring a human resources professional or chief operating officer may be necessary, he says.