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Managing the Millennials

Millennials occupy an increasingly prominent segment of today’s workforce. Savvy talent managers must strategize how best to leverage their contributions.

June 6, 2011
Related Topics: Generations, Diversity and Inclusion

Just like music that seems to get louder and louder with each generation, so too does the rancor over the challenges each generation brings when it enters the workforce.

Talent leaders often hear about 20-somethings failing to launch and returning home to their parents, or impatient and impertinent young associates who clamor for a voice in every decision. This group also has a tendency to move from one employer to the next. Some managers also have encountered the added challenge of helicopter parents who accompany their child on job interviews and question performance appraisals.

Perceived differences between generations are not new: Research reporting older workers’ skeptical views of their younger co-workers has appeared consistently since the 1970s. But young workers today are different from their forebears in a few specific and notable ways — differences that present clear challenges for employers. Employers who are slow to address millennials’ oft-observed desires for feedback, work variety and work-life balance will struggle to retain their best young workers.

Generational Gaps in Work Attitudes
Generally recognized as the cohort born after 1980, millennials differ from baby boomers and Gen X in the workplace in three primary ways.

Probably the most striking difference is the role work occupies in their lives. Work isn’t as important to millennials as it was to previous generations at the same point in their careers. Today’s younger workers are more covetous of leisure time and describe work as less central to their lives. Some employers lament that while their younger employees aren’t as keen to get in the ditch and dig, those same employees remain desirous of the benefits — including status and compensation — that coincide with sustained efforts.

Millennials also interact socially with the world in a different way. They generally are more outgoing and assertive than previous generations, and they thrive on immediate feedback. Sometimes called “trophy kids,” they have both higher self-esteem and a greater need for positive reinforcement; they excel in environments that are low in ambiguity, with tasks that are well specified.

For instance, it’s not out of the question for a millennial to warn her new boss that if she is ever regarded as less than a superstar, she wants to be notified immediately so she can pursue an opportunity elsewhere. Millennials are often quick to wonder how green the grass is on the other side of the fence, and their curiosity likely will become known to those around them. Further, team cohesion and, consequently, team performance are threatened when some members are perceived to be less invested than others.

Finally, not only did millennials grow up with the Internet, they also have been greatly influenced by its ubiquitous ability to connect people across the globe. Consequently, they’re less likely to feel bound by geography or embedded in the physical places where they work. They are comfortable with the sense of community fostered by relationships established and maintained over the Internet. As a result, they are more comfortable than their predecessors with portable work and life environments, making location less important.

Previous generations commuted some distances to work together, whereas millennials are comfortable working together from great distances. We could refer to this type of millennial as a nomad. This individual works remotely and lives in hotels because it affords a sense of freedom consistent with being at home everywhere. The nomad has an extensive network of colleagues and friends, so one week she may work in San Francisco and the next may perform admirably in New York, all the while shopping airfare and hotel prices on the Internet.

The nomad doesn’t like feeling pinned down, and the accommodations for this lifestyle are often less expensive than traditional arrangements, such as renting an apartment. Yet this employee’s responsiveness and work quality are equal or superior to colleagues in more fixed locations. Since location doesn’t matter as much as it might have to previous generations, if a millennial employee is unfulfilled at work in New York, a move to a different company in Chicago is not only reasonable but psychologically easier than it might have been for previous generations.

Getting the Work Done
Despite these differences, talent leaders can successfully attract and retain high-performing employees of this generation. For instance, creating an employment brand — in addition to cultivating a keen understanding of millennials — will pay off. Following are some strategies that may provide companies with an advantage over their less flexible competitors.

Take time off into account. Millennials value not just their time off, but also the ability to control when they are on and off the job. Over the past three decades or so, the number of young people who want more than two weeks of vacation has nearly doubled, according to “Generational Differences in Work Values: Leisure and Extrinsic Values Increasing, Social and Intrinsic Values Decreasing,” published in the Journal of Management, March 2010.

Leaders who fail to adapt company policies to their workers’ attitudes about time off risk losing talent to competitors that have incorporated millennials’ values into their various policies. Such a policy shift might be seismic in companies where more traditional policies are ingrained in their cultures, but the upside to promoting this kind of change is that younger workers are more likely to remain enthused about their work and less inclined to experience destructive burnout symptoms that could cause them to consider other pursuits.

Stay — and empower them to stay — a few steps ahead. To address the potential challenges posed by relatively fixed dispositional characteristics shared by many millennials, companies have two options.

First, they can carefully select employees with certain qualities. By exercising care when conducting interviews and determining which assessments to deploy, talent managers can better gauge the degree to which their millennial applicants can adapt to the workplace. For example, millennials who score higher in intellectual flexibility and comfort with ambiguity should be more adaptive than those who score lower.

One of the major ways millennials on the fast track distinguish themselves from their cohorts is how keenly they appraise uncertainty and reason inductively. Thus, talent leaders who select millennials with these characteristics will fill their ranks with employees who’ll succeed in the short run and be ideally equipped to lead when they do ascend the hierarchy. Further, selecting young workers who are self-aware and sensitive to how their co-workers perceive them means these new employees will be savvy enough to adhere to company norms as well as fit in with employees from older generations.

Second, companies can benefit from clearly articulating the traditional career paths through the organization. A well-designed path up an organizational chart — including what to do, how to do it, and how long it usually takes — will appeal to millennials’ preference for structure and relatively low interest in ambiguity. Millennials tend to thrive when they know precisely what’s expected of them and how they should go about accomplishing goals. From the millennials’ perspective, an expectation of explicit feedback in the workplace is a logical outgrowth of the frequent and specific feedback many received throughout their school years.

Many companies today, particularly those in professional services, do provide yardsticks by which work will be measured. But as the younger generation of workers continues to arrive, it would be prudent for companies in other industries to more deeply explicate the advancement process earlier, complete with standard milestones and timelines.

Build a network. Millennials are actually more satisfied with their jobs and more desirous of job security than Gen X and baby boomers, and empirical evidence — even before the global recession — does not support the notion that younger employees job hop any more than older workers. However, like their older brethren have been doing for years, millennials will leave when they perceive a better opportunity. While previous generations had more concrete pulls to get them to leave a job, such as position or salary, millennials are often prompted to make a move by a vague sense of “Why not try something else and see what happens?”

Companies keen to keep — or at least keep in contact with — high-performing millennials would do well to exploit the social media that has compressed the world and made it psychologically easier for employees to move. For instance, new hires in Bank of America’s leadership development program play a game using LinkedIn to begin building their networks at the bank. These connections most likely remain should any of these high potentials decide to take a job elsewhere.

Consider that McKinsey & Company boasts an alumni network with more than 20,000 people in more than 100 countries. Companies that foster similar connections among their former employees are likely to not only capitalize on the business opportunities that arise from these connections over time, but alumni also may realize the grass isn’t always greener — and at some point express interest in returning to their previous employers.

U.S. Census Bureau data suggests in less than a decade, millennials will comprise about half of the working-age population in the U.S. This demographic change means evidence of small generational differences and even anecdotal observations made in today’s workplace may augur the workplace of the future. Talent managers must remain alert to these shifts so their organizations won’t be left behind.

Brian McMahon is a partner at Reperio Partners LLC. Stephen A. Miles is a vice chairman at Heidrick and Struggles and head of the firm’s leadership advisory services. Nathan Bennett is the Wahlen Professor of Management at Georgia Tech. Miles and Bennett are authors of Your Career Game. They can be reached at

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