Understanding millennials in the workplace

Marlo Oster

To say that millennials have a complicated relationship with employers is an understatement. But who exactly counts as a millennial? Defining generational boundaries is a tricky business, but in 2018 Pew Research declared Millennials as those born between 1981 and 1996. That covers adults between 25 and almost 40-years-old at the moment. 

That timeframe sheds some light on why millennials have dramatically different experiences in the workplace than past generations. Multiple recessions, 9/11, social media's birth, and huge jumps in tech all happened as this group grew and developed. These events could be why millennials are often characterized as resilient, and achievement-driven. So, how do you bring out the best in millennials while overcoming serious challenges such as low engagement and job-hopping?

In the words of Silent Generation member Stephen Covey, it's time to "seek first to understand, then to be understood." 

Millennials in the Workplace: Background and Facts

Millennials are the United State's largest working generation, accounting for 35% of the workforce, and let's face it, most millennial stereotypes aren’t positive. From the mid-2000s until only a few years ago, they were often described as "Generation Me" for their self-centered attitude. Gen Xers and boomers were right to worry that they'd be overrun with entitled, attention-seeking adults.

But, millennials began entering the workforce as early as 1996! That means the oldest, or most experienced, group of millennials has spent the last twenty years working. In 2020 the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics found there were between 5 and 11 million millennial managers. Some millennials are leading Fortune 500 companies, and others are just getting started. But, even with this age difference, there are many commonalities in how they work.

After years of analysis, we can confidently say that millennials have many contradicting work-related traits. You can expect:

  • Low employer-loyalty, but high loyalty for teammates
  • Willingness to compromise, but they're also demanding, especially with soft benefits such as flextime.
  • Quick to change jobs but prioritizes moving up the company ladder quickly.
  • Needy and independent.

On its face, this information is frustrating, but themes are running through these clashing behaviors. Many stumbling blocks that millennial's managers must overcome revolve around these core components: individualism, opportunity-seeking, and engagement.

Managing millennials: common challenges

Once humans started living past the age of 35, the multi-generational workforce has proven... complicated. Every so often, we need to reassess our roles in the workforce and consider those who are new to it. Labeling and picking apart the challenges of hiring, managing, and retaining millennials can certainly help leaders from any generation.

Challenge 1: "Millennials just aren't engaged."

This particular issue has two sides. First, millennials simply don't want to follow the traditional "boss says what to do, then the employee does it" model. Second, the idea of engagement has developed recently.

Think about it, in the 1980s, employees just needed to be productive for most of their 40 hours, show up on Monday, and not rock the boat. Now, executives want managers to get their team excited, like the morning huddle is a Tony Robbins seminar.


Because engaged employees care, and they stay on board. Some companies have that culture. Others wish they did. Engaged millennials can have an unbelievably positive impact on their team and the organization. Unfortunately, 55% of millennials aren't engaged at work, and another 16% are actively disengaged.

It's not that 71% of millennial workers don't care. Employers and managers aren't giving that 71% any reason to feel like their work is worthwhile.

Challenge 2: "Millennials want constant feedback!"

Wave goodbye to the notion that no news is good news because millennials get suspicious or panic when they aren't receiving feedback. It's fair to assume that the bulk of entry-level workers during the dot-com bubble burst and the 2008 recession were millennials. They picked up pretty quickly that when managers get quiet, something might be wrong.

There are many ways to combat this particular challenge, but millennials have provided a direct solution. They want regular and consistently scheduled feedback. That's it. A short meeting once a week or even once a month. One time slot where they can ask you questions, and you can discuss their work performance. It's a win-win, but many managers feel they don't have time. It's easier and more cost-effective to keep good talent by scheduling feedback sessions than it is to attract and onboard new staff.

Challenge 3: "Millennials job-hop way too often."

In the last year, major publications and research groups have taken on the task of deciding if this is fact or perception. Forbes presented the argument that millennials are more loyal than people think, while Pew Research expert cites that job-hop stats on millennials now is the same as Gen Xers in 2002.

Why does everyone think that millennials are always leaving or quitting? Millennials don't have that level of fear that they might not find another job, even when unemployment rates are high. When these employees aren't engaged, they choose to move on to a new opportunity.

Challenge 4: "Millennials don't respect authority or the way things are done."

In thirty years, millennials will be sitting back complaining that the new generation doesn't respect the way things are done. This isn't a millennial problem. Questioning authority is a youth problem. It isn't inherently bad, but it can be disruptive, which can take its toll on any organization. There's also the old "if it isn't broke, don't fix it," saying, and millennials do like to try to fix things that aren't broken.

Will a new generation ever come in and "break the wheel?" No, but world events certainly do a good job of trying. The times are always changing, and who adapts fastest? The new kids. There are nearly endless benefits that a manager could bring in for their team and company if they gave some consideration to new suggestions.

Advice for managing millennials

We covered the primary pain points of working with this generation, but you can do a lot to alleviate these issues. You can certainly make your day-to-day work easier and even prompt your great young talent to productively and passionately thrive within the company.

Hiring millennials

Posting a vague job description and waiting for a flood of applications isn't going to cut it with millennials. You can use these hiring tactics to pull in the best talent among millennial job seekers.

Employer branding is critical. Millennials approach the job market as consumers. They shop around for the best thing. Benefits, hours, work schedules, and promotion opportunities aren't the only driving factors. Before applying, millennials want to know that the company has a vision, goals, and an extra-special something such as community involvement, professional development plans, or a focus on inclusion.

The proof is in the job description, and a millennial applicant won't bother to apply for unclear or incomplete job postings. There's even a strong and ongoing debate about how much pay information should be present in the job post. Writing out detailed job descriptions isn't fun, but it can help you and applicants save time in the hiring process. Especially if you set requirements through application software to ensure that people aren't blindly clicking "apply now."

Onboarding is that middle-ground between hired but not working yet. Early paperwork processing and training is an opportunity to build rapport and get the new hire engaged right away. Don't stick them in a conference room with 800 pages to sign, or put them in front of the computer for hours at a time. If that new hire receives other offers, they may not stick around for long.

Communicating with millennials

Workplace communication is an area where millennials can teach managers quite a bit. They do have demands which can be a drain on the manager's time, but there are other ways that their preferred communication can save time!

One-on-one meetings are vital for cultivating engagement and loyalty with millennials. Only 21% of millennials report having weekly meetings with their managers. However, 44% said that regular meetings would keep them more engaged.

The solution: Put one-on-one meetings on the schedule, but cut out the fluff. Use systems to ensure that the meeting isn't just running down a list of action items. Ask about their professional development and what they would like to do for the team.

The Charma platform allows employees and managers to build shared agendas for one-on-one meetings to address concerns and goal management. Then, use scientifically formulated prompts to kick-off meaningful discussion. You can even create a meeting template, so every employee has a similar one-on-one format, keeping things fair and consistent.

Give some priority to text. Millennials prefer text or digital communication because they want quick and concise answers. You see, 81% of respondents in an Adobe study reported they want technology that will help them connect with coworkers efficiently. To millennials, digital communication isn't a barrier; it's the key. Tools such as Slack or in-app message systems might take some time to learn but ultimately will streamline communication.

Motivating millennials

Managers might notice that millennials are hot or cold about specific elements of the workplace. Some of the best ways to motivate millennials include investing in (effective) tech, encouraging professional development and goal.

Cover management and development methods and apply them consistently. College programs might cover the Four Disciplines, the 7 Habits, Agile, and Six Sigma, but few show the application of these methods or techniques. Short teachings, sending useful resources, and encouraging them to apply the principles or systems can get your millennial staff excited about current projects.

Bring in useful technology. Tech goes a long way with millennials, especially when it automates or eliminates tedious work. 38% of millennials believe that searching for documents is a waste of time, so building an internal index or reference source could have a huge payoff. Other tedious tasks such as scheduling meetings or crafting agendas are things you can automate or simplify.

Communicate positive feedback openly through technology as well. Give public praise often. For older generations, this may feel like a bit much, but when you give kudos in Charma or put up a thank-you note on their desk you’re communicating “Do more of this!” Acknowledge a job well done in small but meaningful ways.

Make a clear path for progression. Simple treemaps of likely career progressions can offer a lot of motivation. Creating these career progression maps can showcase positions that demand unique knowledge combinations, such as overlapping areas between compliance and IT or training and sales. These resources allow millennials to look forward to their career within the company rather than seeking opportunities elsewhere.

Retaining millennials

Retaining is the pain point for companies with millennial staff. Gallup estimated that the U.S. economy loses $30.5 billion each year because of millennial turnover. Managers should know that there are low-cost and low-effort ways to improve millennial retention.

Accessibility is a huge factor in building retention. We know that communication is a big pain point for millennials, so managers need to go beyond having an on-paper open door policy. Encourage staff to come forward with ideas, concerns, observations, and complaints. Give them clear forums for submission and dedicate places or times for open discussion.

Team huddles, one-on-ones, and all-hands meetings are great opportunities to show that you're transparent and approachable. You may also create dedicated Slack channels to take suggestions for the next all-hands meetings or have one email address where staff can submit complaints and concerns.

Personal opportunity to connect and give back is an outstanding way to keep your top talent. Provide resources and encourage participation in webinars, professional development training, and within the community. Community interaction, such as working with local charities, school districts, and first responders, can help your employees feel like you're giving them the experience of making a real difference.

Millennials in the workplace: perception and practice

In the next few years, millennials will become an even larger portion of the workforce. You may already notice that they can scale the corporate ladder quickly, and they are ready to work hard. 73% of millennials work more than full-time or put in over 40 hours a week. On top of being hardworking, they help bring ideas together. They are the bridge between the old and the new. Millennials sit nestled between Gen Xers who saw the first home computer and the digital natives that will soon enter the workforce.

Manager pain points such as their millennial staff wanting constant feedback is a symptom of a remarkable trait. Millennials have spent years working in agile and highly-adaptive environments. The desire for regular feedback and communication ensures that they're on the right path or detect moments when they should pivot. Millennials will happily take constructive feedback and apply it quickly.

Managing millennials isn't easy, but it can be extremely rewarding. You might pick up on their ever opportunistic mindset or their diligence to efficiency. On a final note, millennials in the workplace report placing a high value on mentors. It's possible to build an engaged team by devoting a little bit of your time to individual roles within the team and professional development. You are their opportunity to thrive, so take advantage!

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