Age is Just a Number: Engage Employees by Career Stage, Too

New Data Shows Career Stage More Effective Indicator of Engagement Than Employee Age Alone

While companies tend to default to age as the driver in engaging employees, there's a key element missing. Two similarly aged employees may be at completely different stages in their careers. (Photo: Business Wire)

MINNEAPOLIS--()--Employers often view employee engagement through a generational lens, but new research indicates the need to enlarge their field of vision.

The study, conducted by SMS Research Advisors and commissioned by Padilla, one of the top 10 independent public relations and communications firms in the U.S., found that two in five employees are completely disengaged from their employer. What’s more, that disengagement cuts across generations as well as job title.

“Earning and maintaining employee engagement affects all aspects of business success, yet it is often overlooked by employers as a ‘nice to have,’” said Julie McCracken, senior director in Padilla’s Employee Engagement group. “We’ve known for some time that a one-size-fits-all approach to forging stronger connections doesn’t work. The Engage by Stage research findings also tell us that improving engagement levels is not as simple as tailoring approaches by generation or even by decade.”

The research offers organizations insight into the various stages that employees pass through during their career and the engagement preferences and motivators at each stage. The research also outlines key, actionable takeaways to drive engagement across the organization and retain and inspire talent.

“We realized a lot of research had been conducted on generational differences and preferences in the workplace, but until now, there has not been much insight into how career stage affects employee engagement,” said Dan Reilly, vice president of client services, SMS Research Advisors, a division of Padilla. “We thought it was time to investigate whether there was more to the story. And, if so, to help organizations create a more rounded approach to building an engaged workforce.”

Engage by Stage Research Results

SMS Research Advisors surveyed 1,500 people in the workforce of varying ages, position/level and general mix of industry in August 2017.

For all career stages, satisfaction with the alignment between personal and company values is the key driver to engagement. Regardless of an employee’s age or career stage, they want and need to understand the organization’s purpose, mission and values. This goes beyond communications and into forming a unique culture that brings an organization’s value proposition to life.

Employees in different career stages also share similarities in what was ranked as the top drivers of employee engagement. With the highest average importance rating of 8.6/10, treating all employees fairly and with respect, regardless of position or level is a top company value at all career stages. Employee reward programs are the engagement method across all stages with the largest average gap in what employers currently offer (22.5 percent) versus what employees want (48 percent).

Four Key Career Stages

The various stages come into focus when examining what both motivates and challenges employees throughout their career. Understanding employees’ needs and preferences at each career stage helps identify opportunities to increase engagement across organizations. Padilla defines four key career stages as:

  • Newbie (3 years or less at the company): These employees are least invested in company culture and the most transient, viewing the risk of switching jobs to be low. The top motivator for 59 percent of those in the newbie career stage is learning new skills or gaining new knowledge. They’re eager to learn through experience over formalized training programs. Employees in the newbie stage are challenged by not meeting personal goals or expectations and prefer managers that will offer guidance and feedback.
  • Sophomore (4-7 years at the company): These employees are learning in the moment and focused on proving themselves, but 29 percent also fear getting stuck or not feeling challenged enough. At this career stage, employees pay more attention to ethics, transparency and honest communications, expect more frequent communications from supervisors and place the highest value on work-life balance.

    For all career stages, financial incentives in the form of employee rewards are preferred over recognition. For both newbies and sophomores, tuition loan repayment assistance and health and wellness programs are also in high demand.
  • Tenured (8-10 years at the company): The top motivator for 58 percent of employees in the tenured stage is to contribute to the company’s overall goals. They focus more on what success looks like, are motivated by public recognition and promotion and seek ownership over specific projects or teams. The biggest challenge for the tenured stage is combatting stagnation and feeling “stuck.” It’s important for them to have open, direct conversations with their managers to help look for opportunities to further their career and find ways to overcome any barriers.
  • Sage (11 years or more at the company): With 76 percent of employees in the sage stage considering themselves loyal to their organization, they are the most loyal and engaged career stage overall and have one of the highest Net Promoter Scores. They typically fill more senior or leadership positions, which afford them leverage to dictate the ways they are engaged. They are less focused on building social relationships or credibility, as they have already established this, and are apprehensive about “life after work.” Legacy building is a pride-based motivation and is more often manifested in projects over people. Sage employees place the most emphasis on a company’s value and culture and should be increasingly engaged with projects that build a piece of the organization’s future.

“Overall, to ensure all employees are and remain engaged, organizations must have a compelling vision and mission that is shared, embraced and brought to life in the workplace,” McCracken said. “A comprehensive engagement platform is essential and will be more approachable if it emphasizes universal truths and then builds out to meet the needs of specific employee groups. However, it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a long-term commitment and strategic undertaking that needs leadership backing and support.”

To learn more about the Engage by Stage research findings and Padilla’s employee engagement and SMS research capabilities, visit

About Padilla

Padilla is a top 10 independent public relations and communications company comprised of 240 employee-owners. Padilla builds, grows and protects brands worldwide by creating purposeful connections with the people who matter most through public relations, advertising, digital and social marketing, investor relations and brand strategy. Padilla includes the brand consultancy of Joe Smith, the food and nutrition experts at FoodMinds and the research authorities at SMS. Clients include 3M, Barnes & Noble College, Bayer, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, Hass Avocado Board, Land O’Lakes, Mayo Clinic, Prosciutto di Parma, Rockwell Automation, U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, the Virginia Lottery and Welch’s. Padilla is a founding member of The Worldcom Public Relations Group, a partnership of 143 independently owned partner offices in 115 cities on six continents. Make a connection at

About SMS Research Advisors

As the independent market research firm of Padilla, SMS has helped clients make well-informed, strategic decisions about their organization and market for over 25 years. SMS offers full-suite research capabilities in quantitative and qualitative methodologies across a number of different industries, from manufacturing to health care to technology. SMS designs and conducts research that produces more than just data—it leads to real strategic solutions and drives tactical planning. SMS accomplishes this through a collaborative approach that leverages research expertise with clients’ industry and business experiences to create a highly actionable and effective research solution.


Julie Behr, 612-455-1706

Release Summary

Employers often view employee engagement through a generational lens, but new research indicates the need to enlarge their field of vision.


Julie Behr, 612-455-1706