By Colleen Cone, VP, talent and culture, at Dyn; Charla Bizios Stevens, shareholder and director at McLane Middleton; and Jennifer Parent, shareholder and director at McLane Middleton. 

Millennials, also known as Generation Y, are now firmly established in the workforce, and their numbers are growing significantly as a proportion of the overall workplace. Companies accustomed to engaging other generations in the workplace are going to have to adjust their practices to attract, engage, and retain millennials. So why should companies pay attention? Millennials are the largest group since the baby boomer generation to enter the workforce.

Attracting the top talent among this generation is going to be critical for businesses during the 21st century, especially as the boomers retire or significantly reduce their workloads.

Millennials are men and women born between 1980 and 2000. As a generation, they tend to be highly educated, confident, and technologically savvy. Millennials, however, are different from prior generations and can present challenges for organizations that are not quick to realize they bring with them a new perspective on work and its place in their lives. With that comes a new set of needs and expectations. Baby boomers often joke about turning to their 12-year-olds when they have an IT problem, but growing up in the digital age truly has a profound effect on how millennials think. As employees, these differences set them apart from those who were hired before. They grew up using social media. They expect instant access to information and immediate responses to their questions. They are used to sharing information and having access on a global level. They are also used to connecting remotely, from anywhere and anytime during the day and night.

Baby boomers often complain that millennial employees are just not as ambitious as their hard-working parents — the so called “ambition gap.” True or not, they are future business leaders, and for that reason, their needs must be understood.

First, millennials have not rejected the idea of a corporate career, but they will seek other options — such as starting their own business — if they cannot find workplaces which align with their personal values. What do they value? Time management, relationships, and job security. They would like career success, but will not tolerate unpleasant workplaces that do not allow them to be their authentic selves and do not support their personal and family values.

In the 21st century, companies will need to take steps to modify policies and procedures within the workplace to engage and retain millennials of both genders. Considering and implementing changes today will put certain companies at a competitive advantage tomorrow. Here’s how:

1. Show them they are advancing

Personal and professional goals of millennials challenge them. They want to feel like they are progressing and moving forward in a company. This generation wants to make a difference at work right away. The old “wait until it’s your turn” or “you need to be here 10 years before you can work on that type of project” are nonstarters. Does this mean that companies need to give millennials the corner offices in the first year of employment? No, but there are changes in structure that companies can consider to allow this generation to feel like they are progressing and are an important part of the company. Because millennials like a challenge, move them around within a company to give them experience or crosstraining. Mix teams generationally to allow for the exchange of ideas and mentoring — from both sides. Millennials prefer team-based, collaborative work. Relationships are important to them and they interact with an extensive network of personal and professional connections.

Those companies who develop opportunities for millennials to advance up the career ladder will attract this new generation. To allow for this, companies may need to adjust how this advancement occurs within their internal structures. Adding more levels so there can be steps up in advancement is one way. Adopting a flatter organizational structure is another. Some have described this to be more of a lattice of opportunities rather than a ladder. If employees feel like they are advancing, they are much more likely to be engaged and productive.

2. Manage performance differently

Reports and studies show that the millennial generation demands more and continuous feedback on their performance. As the largest generation since the baby boomers continues to enter into the workplace, companies are learning that the traditional annual or semiannual reviews are not enough. Millennials want to know about their performance now. Again, they are used to the instant feedback associated with social media, which plays a critical role in their lives. Making adjustments to a company’s evaluation process can enhance employee engagement in the workplace — communicating to them that the company considers them important and wants them to succeed. 

3. Enable goal-setting

Research on goal setting suggests that people who set specific, achievable goals are more likely to reach those goals than are people who set nonspecific or grandiose goals. Managers should help employees to set very specific goals to foster performance improvement. Millennials like transparency and to know what is expected of them, where they are going, and why they are headed there. As noted above, feedback should be provided periodically, and the employee's progress toward the goal should be reviewed in subsequent performance evaluations and communications.

4. Be flexible

Companies need to set expectations and deadlines on projects and production. There are orders or jobs to fulfill and client needs to be met. Successfully meeting these demands is what makes a company profitable. In order to attract and retain millennials and to remain competitive in the modern work environment, providing flexibility is required. Long gone are the days where employees clock out at 5 p.m. and are “off-duty” when they leave the parking lot. With the benefits of modern society come the demands of modern society. If your business requires your employees to be flexible in their home lives to accommodate work (checking and responding to email immediately after business hours, etc.), you need to be flexible with work time to accommodate employees’ home lives.

5. Be transparent

Being transparent in communications regarding expected standards of performance, opportunities for advancement, and what treasures await the successful employee at the end of the rainbow will go a long way to improving work relationships, work performance, and minimizing retention problems. Letting employees know what is expected of them, and providing feedback to them on an ongoing basis, keeps employees motivated. More importantly, letting them know when they can expect to advance and what they can look forward to when they get to the next level will help to keep them engaged in the workplace. However, the millennials’ view of the time/space continuum is not the same as that of the other generations. One millennial, Elizabeth McLeod, in her blog post, “Why Millennials Keep Dumping You: An Open Letter to Management,” had this to say: “I was making more money bartending in college than I am at this entry-level job. You say I’ll get a raise in a year if the company hits a certain number? So what? I need something to care about today. Talk to me about how we make a difference, not your ROI (return on investment) report.”

Employees want to know their part in making the business successful. They need to feel invested and like they have a stake in the outcome. However, they need to know what the stakes are and when they can expect it to be delivered. They won’t wait it out in the hopes of unveiling a mystery gift in a year or two.

6. Teach multigenerational cooperation

An organization’s diverse culture is an asset. Companies that harness the value generational diversity brings to an organization and take steps to provide a workplace free from age discrimination succeed. While this article focuses on revisiting policies and practices in an effort to engage and retain millennials, companies must be mindful that whatever policies they put in place are consistent across all generations. Federal and state laws protect employees from discrimination based on protected categories such as age. If there is flexibility for one employee, it must be allowed for all. The desire of a millennial for time during the day to attend a child’s school play is no different than a Boomer’s need to take a few hours off to attend a doctor’s visit with an ailing parent.

Successful companies understand that having sensitivity and fairness around these issues leads to a more productive workforce and ultimately, profitability. Companies should consider training on multigenerational differences so there is an understanding and acceptance by all. Age bias can often be subtle. Educating workers and managers about their own unconscious biases can lead to a recognition and avoidance of misconduct and foster collaboration. Also consider mentoring and “reverse” mentoring — older and younger workers mentoring each other. Accepting difference is key. Everyone has strengths and experiences that can be passed along to others to enhance the benefit of a mixed-age work force.

For further reading, download the ACC Docket article “The Graying of the Legal Department and Its Implications for Hiring and Developing In-house Talent” []. Learn tips for recruiting and retaining the emerging crop of millennial lawyers.