THE BLOG
11/18/2014 05:15 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How to Attract, Retain, and Develop Millennial Employees

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Figuring out how to work with the "Millennial" generation has often been a pain point for me at my strategic marketing and PR firm. The reason comes from the different experiences between millennials and those, like me, who were born in the 1970s or earlier.

When I started my first job, I knew that the position would consume my life for the next four or five years because I would need to do whatever it took to learn and get ahead. Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I always made sure that I was the first one in and the last one out. I stayed as late as was necessary and never left before my boss or team lead. I always would ask, "Is there anything I can do to help you so that you can get home?"

However, after starting my own business and then employing many Millennial staffers, I started to question why they were more liberal with the times that they would come to and leave the office. They seemed not to have the same mentality. After speaking with others in my industry who had encountered the same issue, I realized the reason: The technology is completely different today.

I had no laptop or smartphone. The technology I used was on the local server and not in the cloud. I could not work from home until 2001 - and, even then, it was a pain to connect to the servers. (Remember the days of slow Internet access?) Millennials never lived this way - they can connect and work from anywhere easily. If one of my staffers is working three hours at night from home, then that is three hours that he or she might not need to be in the office.

After I realized this difference, I started to wonder: "What else are they thinking?" "What drives them?" "How can I attract them to my firm, maintain them as employees, and help to grow both their careers and my company?"

Here's why I'm not the only employer that should be asking these questions:

"By 2015 Millennials will outnumber Baby Boomers equating to more than 50% of the US workforce," Sound Advice Consulting Services founder Jason Hill told me in an interview over e-mail. "By 2025 Millennials will make up approximate 75% of the entire US labor force."

The debate on the differences between the Baby Boomers and the Millennials (or Generation Y) - defined as those born after 1980 - are ubiquitous in today's business literature and media. While there is no shortage of information on the topic, many articles have neglected to consider many things.

Can these supposed distinctions be traced to something fundamentally different between the two generations, or are these perceived differences simply a factor of age and the fact that Baby Boomers, who are around 55, have different needs than Millennials, who are roughly 25?

According to research by Wharton professor Peter Cappelli that was cited in Harvard Business Review's blog, there is little evidence to support a fundamental generational difference. He maintains that perceived distinctions are largely a function of age. If we rolled the clock back forty years, a 25-year-old Baby Boomer exhibited many of the same characteristics that we would ascribe to a 25-year-old Millennial today.

In short, young people will always act like young people. (And that's not a bad thing!)

While there may not be a core generational difference between Baby Boomers and Millennials, those of us in generationally-diverse organizations do see each demographic's unique needs and the dynamics that those needs create. Ignoring the needs and dynamics can directly and negatively affect an organization's ability to attract, retain, and develop young talent.

Psychologist Kurt Lewin's brilliant understanding for what drives human behavior posited that B = f(P,E), where B (behavior) is a function of a P (person) and their E (environment). While the P in Lewin's equation may be fundamentally the same when accounting for age, E is most certainly not.

Jonathan Kirschner, founder and CEO of Aiir Counsulting, takes that idea and looks at Baby Boomers and Millennials in this in the context of E (environment):

  1. War. Baby Boomers experienced a draft (World War II and Vietnam), while Millennials have largely avoided the existential stressors, pressures, and traumas that naturally envelope a generation during a time of war. (While the United States has been at war somewhere since 2001, a smaller percentage of young people are fighting overseas directly.) As a result, they have had more time to focus on their own individual needs rather than the needs of their countries. Millennials, then, naturally have the luxury of being more self-absorbed and narcissistic than prior generations - so, they have a need to feel special and unique.
  2. Technology. Millennials grew up with modern technology, and their mobile devices have more in common with body limbs than communications devices. Technology is pervasive and integrated in the lives of most Millennials in a way that simply did not happen for Baby Boomers and those, like me, in Generation X.
  3. Globalization. In addition to being digital natives, Millennials have grown up with globalization. This generation is the most educationally and ethnically diverse that the world has ever seen - as a result, they are perfectly comfortable working at odd hours with people on the other side of the planet.

In that context, here is some of Kirschner's advice for creating a generationally-diverse organization:

  • Restrictions on the use of social media and mobile apps - which are both increasingly integrated into the day-to-day lives of Millennials for both personal and work purposes - are constricting.
  • Hierarchical, bureaucratic structures are less attractive than flatter, agile systems that emphasize autonomy and reflect the increased speed at which tasks are complete get done.
  • Millennials leverage technology to save time and money. Traveling here to there and here to there and here to there to see a client is less attractive than using online meeting tools. Companies that insist on the former are going to lose employees.
  • A world in which everyone is on social media is a world in which peoples' voices are becoming more and more equal. On some level, this must be reflected in the office.

The greatest way to retain Millennials, however, leverages timeless advice that pertains to human behavior:

  1. Be in the present rather than stuck in the past.
  2. Leverage technology for efficiency.
  3. Ensure that the mission and vision are felt prominently among the leaders and communicated throughout the company.
  4. Align your mission with staffers' personal missions.
  5. Give employees challenges.
  6. Recognize employees and make them feel valued and important through monetary rewards and mentoring.
  7. Instill hope.

Despite finding of all of this advice, I still questioned how to keep Millennials engaged at work. Then, I found this video at Chief Learning Officer that might help:

Hill, the founder of Sound Advice Consulting Services, explained more over e-mail:

Millennials work very differently than Generation X and the Baby Boomers. Millennials prefer less hierarchy, more transparency and flatter organizations. Unlike generations before, Millennials don't aspire to climb the proverbial corporate ladder. Millennials are much more focused on learning, growing, developing and enhancing their skills and most importantly are looking to derive fulfillment from the task at hand.

He defined Millennials as:

  1. Millennials are much more team oriented.
  2. They excel in group environments and prefer to work on shorter/smaller versus longer/larger projects.
  3. Having grown up digitally native, with more access, and greater privilege than any prior group.
  4. Millennials require greater flexibility in the workplace. Examples include; work schedules, how and where they work.
  5. Transparency is also extremely important to Millennials as they like to understand the big picture, like to connect the dots of what they personally are working on and how it fits in the big picture and are able to do this all seamlessly via technology.

These are the principles that I have learned and incorporated into the operations of my strategic marketing and PR firm, The Cline Group. I would love to hear your opinions in the comments below. Business executives, how do you attract, keep, and grow Millennial talent? Millennials, what do you wish your bosses would know about you?

(Image Credit: Phil Whitehouse)