by | Nov 19, 2020

What can corporate talent management learn from professional basketball? There are many behavior trends that are shared by both Gen-Z and millennial employees and NBA players, making the upcoming free agency period a great case study for employers looking to understand the generations on the rise.

For NBA fans like me, this week is a condensed form of one of the most exciting times of year: the draft and free agency. This point in the offseason is when players change teams, either by signing a new contract or through a trade, and new players come into the league for the first time.

The league-wide average player age is 26. Though these players have greater financial stakes than even most corporate executives, they’re still members of the Gen-Z and millennial generations, so their career moves can teach us a lot about what younger employees want.

1. “It’s just business” goes both ways.

From LeBron James’s “The Decision” in 2010 to Anthony Davis forcing the New Orleans Pelicans to trade him last summer, players have been leveraging their star power to go to the team of their choice more than prior generations, spawning terminology like “pre-agency” and “the player-empowerment era.” Modern players often see this kind of autonomy to be a more level playing field; team executives have always been able to trade players after contracts were signed, but players have been bound by these agreements.

Now, the players are pulling closer to even in the tug-of-war. Loyalty used to be expected from players but not owners and executives. Players are making sure that those expectations are now uniform.

In the workplace, especially in larger companies, most younger employees don’t expect their firm (as an organization) to be loyal to them. Gen-Z and those just on the cusp saw their parents or their friends’ parents lose their jobs in 2008 while top-level executives fared far better. Younger employees see that the nature of these relationships, when times get tough, are often strictly business, so they’re less bothered by older morality questions of switching jobs or fielding offers from other companies.

2. The job has to provide both compensation and opportunity.

Part of the reason superstar players have been moving around so much is that modern players don’t just get to do things other than basketball, they’re expected to have multiple interests.

There’s speculation that LeBron James went to L.A., in part, to expand his content production career and that Kevin Durant was drawn to Brooklyn because of his venture capital interests.

While Samad in Payroll and Ellen in Sales might not expect you to help them produce a Hollywood blockbuster or give them a lead on a series-A investment opportunity, you can expect that they’ll want you to help them build your skills for the next steps in their journey, which may go outside of their employment with you. 

3. They want to be superstars off the court, too.

After the NBA spent more than $180 million to set up the bubble in Orlando and make the 2020 playoffs happen, the players almost shut it down and went home—because some things are more important than basketball.

In this case, the strike started when the Milwaukee Bucks boycotted their playoff game on August 26 after the shooting of Jacob Blake in their home state of Wisconsin. Once all of the other playoff teams followed the Bucks’ suit, the players used this moment that they’d leveraged to speak up about the systemic sociopolitical problems that they see in the US and got more support from the team owners.

On a smaller scale, many under-35 employees want the ability to take action for causes they care about through their jobs. Whether that takes the form of volunteer opportunities, social media activity, or excused time off for sociopolitical causes, younger employees seek out and increasingly expect these things from their employers.

It might be confusing that both younger employees and NBA players expect more from their employers in this department while being less loyal. These can certainly appear to be competing viewpoints. If you could benefit from guidance on issues like this and other trends with younger generations of employees, Tribe can help.

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