Preparing the workplace for millennials

A third of the world's population coming to a workplace near you... Are you Millennial friendly?


Caroline is a millennial, one of the 2.5 billion (source) people born between 1980 and 2000 who are establishing themselves in the workplace.  A recent Deloitte study reports 53% of her contemporaries aspire to leadership roles.   Caroline joined a leading International corporate as a science post-graduate direct from university. She stayed with the company 56 days and resigned. At the exit interview she explained that the role, training and career opportunity did not match her expectations. She found the culture ageist, hierarchical and rigid; and rather than “biding her time”, as her mentors/supervisors counselled, she walked.  HR and her bosses were quick with the incriminatory post-mortem: ‘this new generation have no work ethic, want everything on a plate, want to run before they can walk, can’t hold down a job’….ad infinitum. The fact is, Caroline’s departure says more about the organisation’s structure and lack of preparedness to hire young talented millennials than it says about Caroline.

We are only really beginning to understand what makes millennials tick. The bulk of the research on this demographic has been carried out on the values/attitudes/aspirations of millennials who are entering the established job market with degrees (just like Caroline). Let’s focus on the millennial graduate population because (let’s face it) they make up the primary talent group that Fortune 500 companies are targeting; but let’s keep in mind Eric Hoover’s argument, The Millennial Muddle How stereotyping students became a thriving industry and a bundle of contradictions, cautioning against stereotyping this group. In Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers and Nexters in Your Workplace, the authors Ron Zemike, Claire Raines and Bob Filipczak adopt a behaviourist approach by looking at how political, economic, socio-cultural environments collectively shape generations. Let’s follow this methodology. This demographic have grown up in very turbulent times. They have seen endless images of warfare on their TVs and computer screens in the Middle-East and North Africa (Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya); they’ve experienced terrorism on their doorstep in major cities such as New York, Bali, Madrid, London, Nairobi and Paris); they have experienced the fall and rise of Russian military power and the expansion of European democracy (most notably in East Berlin). They have witnessed natural catastrophes (which they believe stem from global climate change): Tsunamis and floods in Southeast Asia, devastating hurricanes in America, earthquakes in Pakistan and Haiti. They have seen school shootings take place in Europe and US (such as Dunblane, Utøya, Columbine). They have grown up in the shadow of fatal epidemic diseases such as aids, cholera and Ebola. This generation’s parents have experienced unprecedented prosperity but also fearsome economic downturns and controversies such as the dot com bubble burst, corporate scandals of the nineties and the recent global recession resulting in household job losses and austerity/uncertainty. They have grown up in a period of unrivaled technological revolution that has given them mobile phones, personal computers, internet, social media and the rise of the millennial entrepreneur, but has also given them state surveillance and digital viruses. If you talk to the majority of this graduate demographic, home life was prosperous, surrounded by good design (as design became more affordable with the growth of such outlets as IKEA), and it was an era of parental responsibility (as Millennial Marketing observes “Millennials were raised with doting parents who were attentive to every detail of their development and education”).

All of these political, economic, socio-cultural domestic and technological defining moments that have shaped the millennial generation’s values/outlook/ambitions/behaviours play out in the workplace. If one were to attempt to characterise this graduate demographic, they are familiar with unpredictability/uncertainty and need to proactively determine and control their lives by creating security for themselves through global careers and fast-track promotion based on ability and performance (“more than 40 percent of millennial workers expect to be in a management position within two years.”). They like optionality and don’t like to be tied down (“Employees, especially younger ones, expect to be able to work remotely, analysts say.”). They value education and one-to-one coaching and are keen goal orientated learners. They have strong eco values and want to live in a safe and meaningful world (“6 /10 Millennials said a sense of purpose is part of the reason they chose to work for their current employer”). They are confident negotiators and team players having grown up in crèches, kindergartens, schoolclubs, summercamps and have been treated at home as “little adults”.  They respect honesty (“One-half (52%) of both Gen Z and Gen Y state that honesty is the most important quality for being a good leader.”), democracy and openness and place trust in institutions – they have seen how institutions and countries can become better through reform and democracy (“Over 90% of Millennials believe that businesses can move the dial on key issues and 3/4 believe government has the potential to address society’s challenges”). They celebrate diversity – as Boston College Center For Work & Family reports, “Their racial and ethnic profile is far more diverse than in previous generations. In addition, there are more students today from single-parent homes, blended families, and families with same sex parents than ever before. This generation is also seen as having far more egalitarian views about the roles of women than did their predecessor generations.”  Words that resonate well with millennial graduates are: honesty,  opportunity, purposefulness, flexibility , employability, growth, coaching, development feedback, diversity, fairness, technology, environment.

Herein lies the challenge…

How many of us can put our hand on our heart and say that the organisations where we work are millennial friendly?  The fact is, most established organisations have the following three entrenched cultures:

Planned Succession where there is a specific pipeline to progression and employee opportunity for training/development and career progression tends to be measured in estimated/capped potential ranking and length of service

Presentism where there is still a dominant perception that employees are most productive at the office during office hours

Hierarchy where there is a chain of command and your grade and job title determines the type of work you do

In these ageist, hierarchical and rigid cultures, is it no wonder that millennials walk?

So what is to be done?

1. Stop blaming the millennials. Seek to understand the defining political, economic, socio-cultural environments that have shaped them and face the reality that in 5 years this group will make up 50% of the global workforce (75% by 2025) and as David Burstein reasons in a recent Globe and Mail interview “for the first time in history, a generation will represent both the largest consumer force and the largest employee force”. US annual spending power for this group will be $1.4 trillion by 2020 (source). If you ignore the needs of this group, you will not attract and retain the best millennial talent and that will hurt your enterprise.

2. Review your structures.
Ask yourself the question: how can this generation be best served so that they can give their best?

Planned Succession
Factor into your succession planning more opportunities for this generation to lead meaningful projects and scrap fixed career paths/assignment lengths/estimated potentials. Give early opportunities for training and leadership development and look to workplace learning, bite-size learning and self-directed learning as an e-alternative to bootcamp classroom training.  Create a coaching culture where managers’ promotional prospects are part-determined on their ability to coach and develop their staff.

Look at ways of creating a more flexible working environment. Flexibility does not mean work/life balance (which is a Boomer interpretation of flexibility); in the context of the millennial generation, it means they can do their work when/where they feel most productive and will not be judged if they are not “at their desk” at a specific time. Dave Ulrich says “Millennials often want to find a life-work (not work-life) balance. Work is not just about performing tasks, but about finding meaning. When a job does not provide that meaning, they move on to the next job in search of it.”

In a recent survey, 83% of millennials said they would prefer to work for a company with fewer layers of management. Look for ways to make your organisation more holacratic by creating simpler structures or even a bossless environment. Promote a culture of trust, self-leadership and self-responsibility where opportunities are not tied to positional status. Ensure a climate of equal opportunities where reward, promotion and growth is driven by talent. Eliminate the unfair, one-off yearly appraisal which reinforces line-management dominance in preference for ongoing coaching and stakeholder feedback.

3. Get joined up. Have a cross-company strategy on how to recruit and retain millennials and make it fair, transparent and accountable. What millennials are told at recruitment should be no different from what they experience throughout their time in the company. Recruitment, on-boarding, training/development, planning, succession, line management support should all be strategically aligned.

The clock is ticking. The PWC report, Millennials at work Reshaping the workplace states, “Attracting the best of these millennial workers is critical to the future of your business. Their career aspirations, attitudes about work, and knowledge of new technologies will define the culture of the 21st century workplace.” If you are sitting on your hands, you will lose in the talent-war to your competitors. This graph clearly shows the issue:


Research indicates 75% of millennials would consider leaving their job if they don’t see options for their professional development. If your organisational culture is not millennial friendly, they will not want to work for you and not wish to stay; like Caroline, they will walk, leaving you to play the blame game.

Richard Kelly PhD.
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This is part of the Switched on Leadership Series.  Click here for an assessment of the mid-level leader and look out for future articles in this series covering  front-line and executive leadership.