Solving the Millennial Puzzle: How to Engage Your Millennial Employees

Jim Bitterle - Consulting Managing Partner ·

Business leaders regularly complain to me about millennials. It seems those darn millennials aren’t very loyal, don’t want to work hard, and don’t want to pay their dues before assuming a leadership role. Well, these perceptions may seem true to many business leaders, but to others, they couldn’t be further from the truth. I have worked with companies who manage their millennial employees very ineffectively, and some who do a great job in implementing talent management strategies targeted to this unique group.

In this article, you will learn about common millennial misconceptions and workplace preferences, best practices on engaging millennials in the workplace, and industry findings that highlight how millennials positively influence a company’s culture and bottom line.

Let’s refresh our memory on who makes up the millennial generation. According to the Pew Research Center, millennials were born between 1981 and 1996. As of the start of 2020, 50% of our workforce is made up of millennials and by 2030, it will increase to 75%.*

Millennials, now the largest portion of the American workforce, are the most studied – and possibly the most misunderstood – generation. Millennials have been pegged as young kids that got an award for participating in anything, are addicted to cell phones and gaming consoles, and expect to be promoted into a leadership role long before they’ve paid their dues, and seemingly job hop whenever a cooler opportunity arises. But are these assumptions true?

Let’s diver deeper into the top millennial misconceptions

Millennials are job hoppers

This is a common misconception, but statistics on job tenure for Americans in their 20s today are similar to what they were in the 1980s. Job hopping appears to be a common feature of being a young worker in general, versus millennials in particular.

Millennials need too much praise/recognition

The impression that millennial workers need constant positive reinforcement may be less true than them simply being accustomed to getting more frequent feedback. In an IBM study, the majority of millennials claim to want a boss that is fair, ethical, transparent, consistent and dependable. Only 29 percent said they were looking for praise for accomplishments. This defies the myth that millennials want constant praise.

Millennials are hooked on all things tech

This one is more of a misunderstanding versus misconception. Millennials grew up immersed in technology, so it's no surprise that technology is a major part of their life. More than anything, millennials appreciate efficiency. They love technological advances that allow them to communicate better and quicker. For example, cell phones not only function as a connection tool for calls and texts, they are a business tool for many. Who hasn’t taken phone notes during a meeting when you’re without a pen? However, when it comes to their preferred method of communication in the workforce, 39 percent of millennials state that they want face-to-face communication above emails and text messages.

Speaking of technology and its influence on millennials … we must remember that they grew up in an era of 9/11, the internet, gaming, cell phones and smart phones, social media, the Great Recession and overly protective parents. Their life experiences have shaped them in such a way that educational attainment and diversity are at the forefront, which is very different than Boomers or Gen Xers*. Given their unique experiences, they want different things in the workplace. Understanding what they value, and respecting these differences can lead to having a truly engaged, effective millennial workforce.

For more on millennial stereotypes and how to address them, be sure to check out one of our previous blogs here.

So what exactly do millennials want in the workplace?

Gallup's research about millennials finds that they tend to value certain aspects of the employee experience, including:

Millennials want to work for a purpose, not simply a paycheck.

For millennials, work must have meaning. Their compensation is important and must be fair, but they're motivated more by mission and purpose than paycheck. They want to contribute something to the world and they want to be proud of their employer.

Millennials value learning and development.

Purpose and development drive this generation, and they expect opportunities to learn and grow. According to LinkedIn, 74 percent of employees felt they weren’t achieving their full potential due to a lack of development opportunities.

Millennials want coaches, not bosses.

Millennials expect their managers to coach their performance and to value them as people and employees. They look for leaders who value collaboration and communication, and leaders who are able to keep them engaged and challenged.

Millennials want ongoing conversations and check-ins, not annual reviews.

The old model annual performance reviews don’t work well for most employees, especially millennials. Irregular feedback keeps the conversation one-sided and happening too infrequently. Millennials need a steady stream of check in’s, with feedback on their current performance, not only incidents from the past.

Well, what do you think about these millennial preferences? They don’t sound too unreasonable, right? According to SHRM, more corporations are meeting millennials' desires for a kinder, gentler workplace because it improves the bottom line and aids recruitment. Baby Boomers may roll their eyes about certain demands millennials may make of their workplace and label them as entitled or narcissistic, but many of those demands really are very good for business and Gallup’s analytics prove it.

Take a look below at the top priorities different generations look for when considering a new job.

For millennials, the purpose-passion-people priorities are the things that matter most. Gallup research also found that one in three employees worldwide strongly agree with the statement, "The mission or purpose of my organization makes me feel my job is important.” The report also reveals 21% of millennials say they've changed jobs within the past year, which is more than three times the number of non-millennials who report the same.

What does a successful millennial workplace look like?

Companies that are thriving with millennial workers understand and meet their needs. They’ve opened their minds to change and great conversations, created growth and development opportunities, created flexibility in the workplace, and have focused on creating an overall positive work culture.

Take American Express, for example. Founded in 1850, it’s one of the top, oldest companies in the U.S. Company leaders at AmEx are known for being open-minded and flexible. They are committed to a healthy work/life balance, including flexible schedules and work arrangements and open to discussions on subjects such as mental health and diversity. Smart companies have come to realize that the more open-minded they are in implementing millennial-friendly practices and ideas, the more positive and fruitful their company growth and bottom line are.

Take a look at this graphic below that shows how a company’s Glassdoor score correlates with higher profitability.

What about Bottom Line?

Speaking of bottom line, failing to accommodate the healthy and reasonable needs of millennials could cost you. Gallup research shows that millennial turnover costs the U.S. economy an estimated $30.5 billion annually. Engaging millennials with a job that has purpose and meaning drives them to give their best at work, benefitting the company as a whole.

Solving the Millennial Puzzle means you’ll need to adjust to accommodate some unique needs and preferences. Just remember, millennials aren’t the only ones who will benefit! Make it your company’s goal to create an environment where teamwork and collaboration can happen between all generations. You can start by following some of the best practices shared in this article. Once you do, you’ll find your millennial workers can be excellent, loyal, innovative and very effective employees who contribute to the positive growth and culture of your company. The best rule of thumb to remember is that millennials seek a balance of personal life and career advancement. What company wouldn’t want that for all generations of their employees?

*Pew Research Center:

To learn more about talent management strategies that help attract and retain millennials, go here.

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