THE BLOG

Managing the Restless Millennial Employee

06/09/2015 12:19 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2016

"Should I stay or, should I go now?"

This is a question millennial employees ask themselves far more regularly than workers of other generations.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, millennials - those between 18 and 34 years old - have an average job tenure that's an eyeblink compared to the median for their older colleagues. Average time on the job for those between 20 and 24 years old? Less than 16 months. Between 25 and 34? Three years. But add in the older generations and the median job tenure shoots up: for the entire age group above 25 years old, the average time on the job is a comparatively hefty 5.5 years.

2015-06-08-1433787736-4664095-Dollarphotoclub_83066528.jpg This poses quite a conundrum for employers. On one hand, millennials comprise the lion's share of the workforce these days, taking up 34 percent, compared to 32 percent for generation Xers and 31 percent for baby boomers. Companies need to embrace this growing workforce, but how do can they approach employee engagement for employees who are known for their lack of company loyalty?

Some managers are adopting an attitude of "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." In other words, reframing their perspective of the constant millennial job flux as an opportunity to get the most out of these employees as fast as they can. Other companies are hiring experts to advise them on how to retain their slippery staff.

A recent Wall Street Journal article by Lindsay Gellman cited several Millennial retention techniques being adopted by companies across the country:

  • One expert believes that a lack of close ties at work often causes young people to leave. So she advises companies to strengthen networking opportunities for junior employees, such as by hosting mentorship "mixers" to allow relationships to develop between senior and junior colleagues.

  • Companies such as IBM, Coca-Cola and Visa have relaxed their office dress codes and organized councils of millennial employees to offer feedback on things like marketing campaigns and workplace policies.
  • Ernst & Young and Philips NV have launched programs that send millennial employees across the globe for months at a time, developing their leadership skills and probably making these workers happier with their jobs.
  • Online deals site RetailMeNot Inc. invites its millennial employees to participate in hiring decisions, to make them feel more involved and excited about the caliber of their co-workers.
  • Not every company thinks it's smart or necessary to pursue lengthy retention for the millennial employee. As noted by Gellman in the Wall Street Journal piece, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman proposes a different model for the employer-employee relationship in his book, "The Alliance."

    This model is based on mutual expectations and the possibility of the employee leaving, framed by specific goals to be met during an employee's "tour of duty," as it's referred to at LinkedIn. The acknowledgement that an employee might leave after a tour is over increases the likelihood that he or she will actually stay on, according to this concept.

    What I've found curiously missing from the chatter about the Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers around millennial employees is any discussion about volunteering and giving. According to the Six-Month Research Update to the 2014 Millennial Impact Report, millennials who stay at their jobs for more than five years are passionate about their work and feel bonded with their co-workers by a belief in their company's mission and purpose.

    As I've written about previously, this report notes that millennials want to volunteer together and feel connected through a shared passion for their company's cause work, ideally through initiatives that help their surrounding community. Culture is everything; for millennials, the company's cause work must be integrated into its core mission.

    Many of the same things that keep millennials at their jobs are what drew them there in the first place. For these young professionals, one of the very top considerations for applying for a job is the company's work culture, involvement with causes, office environment, and attention to diversity and HR standards.

    According to the study, companies that are adapting their CSR strategies to attract millennials, and specifically incorporating causes into their culture, are more successful at attracting and retaining millennials as employees.

    Astute company leaders also understand that each generation approaches the volunteer experience differently. I previously wrote about what some generational theorists have to say about the millennial volunteer: they're highly educated and extremely technologically savvy, as well as enthusiastic, fun and eager. Millennials crave personal attention and lots of praise. Like the traditionalists, they volunteer because they believe it's their civic duty and they want to make a difference. Millennial students often volunteer to gain professional experience. They came of age through social media and prefer to communicate through Facebook, Twitter or text. So for millennials, a social, mobile and interactive volunteer experience will help keep them engaged and wanting more.

    For companies interested in retaining millennials, it's vital to infuse cause work into the corporate ethos, and then to structure the volunteer experience in ways that will be attractive to millennials. Creating a culture that embraces not only the idea of giving back but also the millennial relationship to volunteering and giving may not guarantee a long tenure for the millennial employee, but it may help offset some of the millennial wanderlust.