The millennials -- people in their 20s -- are just now entering the workforce, bringing with them new promises and challenges for HR, not to mention a whole new way of working.
They are described as smart, coddled and civic-minded, as team players and techno-wizards. They are the millennials, the newest generation of employees, and they are rewriting the rules of employee engagement.
At 80 million strong, the millennials, born 1978 through 1999, are in a position to get what they want -- and what they want is decidedly different from what many of their baby boomer and Generation X managers want.
In just the last four years, millennials have grown from 14 percent of the workforce to 21 percent -- nearly 32 million workers, according to a February report by Grand Rapids, Mich.-based office-furniture maker Steelcase entitled Millennials Make Their Mark. Their size and influence will increase as baby boomers retire, other reports suggest. In 2005-2006, college hiring was projected to rise by 14 percent over the previous two-year period, says the National Association of Colleges and Employers in Bethlehem, Pa.
"The issue of 'what does this generation want out of work?' drives a lot of our people strategy," says Jennifer Allyn, an HR director in the Office of Diversity at New York-based auditing and consulting firm PricewaterhouseCooopers, where, according to her, the average age is 29.
Companies that do not recognize and handle the potential for age-related clashes are setting themselves up for misunderstandings, conflicts and failures in recruiting and retention, consultants warn.
"I tell baby boomer managers all the time, 'You've got to put yourself in their shoes. You may not like it, but that's the reality of the workplace,' " says Bob Jewell, a management consultant who heads OMEGA Leadership Group in West Chester, Ohio.
"Every generation is a little different from the next," says Ed Adams, senior vice president of human resources at St. Louis-based Enterprise Rent-A-Car. "Millennials have been exposed to a culture of dual-career families, downsizings and rightsizings. They've had more free time and more structured activities, used more time-saving devices and more creative comforts, than any other generation. They have a different perspective about work and the role it occupies in their lives than earlier generations. Most importantly, millennials have more choices than any other generation of workers. We should listen to them and learn how to develop attractive careers and job environments where they and the business can be mutually successful."
It's a two-way street in which young employees and their older managers must strive to understand and adapt to each other, says Claire Raines, a Denver-based workplace consultant who specializes in generational issues.
At the risk of generalizing, working millennials in their late teens and 20s possess some defining characteristics, with profound implications for everything from hiring to office design, according to human resource executives and recruiting and management consultants.
Ambitious and goal-oriented, they seek "interesting, meaningful" work, not just a paycheck, says Steven Rothberg, founder of CollegeRecruiter.com, a Minneapolis-based Web site for job-hunting students and recent graduates. At the same time, they value the security of health and retirement benefits.
They ask lots of questions, not to challenge authority but to understand their role in an organization. New as they are, they want their ideas taken seriously.
Millennials are also multitaskers who like to stay busy, often with three or four projects at once. Lindsey Hackman, 26, a speech-language therapist near Washington, holds two part-time jobs and recently wrote a children's book.
They like to work in teams. Forget cubicles. Open up the office space and let them interact as they work. "They're very comfortable with shared rewards," says Kevin B. Wheeler, president of Global Learning Resources Inc., a recruiting consulting firm in Fremont, Calif.
Millennials love the latest technology. With laptop and cell phone in hand, they'll work from anywhere at any time. "I work at home, I work on airplanes, I work at hotels," says Sommer Kehrli, 27, a self-employed organizational development consultant in Mountain View, Calif.
Finally, this generation needs "to feel noticed, respected and involved," the result, perhaps, of having been "the center of their parents' lives," says Bernadette Kenny, senior vice president in charge of HR at Adecco Group North America, a staffing firm based in Melville, N.Y.
Thus we're presented with the phenomenon of "helicopter parents," who hover over their children's job hunts, at their children's requests, just as they hovered at science fairs, cheered from soccer sidelines and solved their children's problems for them. "There's definitely more parental involvement than ever before," says Marie Artim, assistant vice president of recruiting at Enterprise.
For HR practitioners, this presents a delicate balance between trying to get the most out of a diverse and multi-generational workforce without catering too much to one side, and trying to present a welcoming, nonjudgmental atmosphere for the newcomers.
To keep millennials -- and their parents -- happy, Enterprise sends information to the parents of prospective employees. It's even allowed parents to be on the phone when job offers are discussed. "We look at it as a great way to educate [parents] about the opportunities we offer," Artim says. "They've become part of the process." With 55,000 U.S. employees, Enterprise plans to hire 7,000 for its entry-level management-training program this year.
Extreme behaviors, such as intervening in performance reviews, are the exception rather than the norm, experts say. Still, "supervisors are pulling their hair out over this. They hate it," Raines says.
It takes more than parental involvement to appeal to millennials, however. First and foremost, recruiters must retire a one-size-fits-all strategy, Wheeler says. "We'll have to have different strokes for different folks, different recruiting packages for different generations."
Millennials look for suitable employers, not just suitable jobs. For many, that means a workplace that is diverse, flexible, fun and community-minded. Traditional job postings don't cut it with this crowd, Rothberg says. Millennials want to know about a company's culture and people, too. "Paint a picture for them so they really understand what they're getting into," he says.
A recruiting Web site is a natural place to deliver these messages. The best of them use dazzling graphics and video; short, punchy text; and profiles of young employees and their experiences both at and outside of work.
Enterprise's Web site (www.enterprise.com) touts entrepreneurship, diversity and social responsibility. It features photos and stories of employees describing how they started and grew at the company. There are also online polls about fun at work and contact information for Enterprise's 200 U.S. recruiters. (For other compelling recruiting Web sites, see PricewaterhouseCoopers, www.pwc.com, and Federated Department Stores Inc., www.retailology.com.)
Useful as these sites are, it's important not to hide behind them, Artim says. Enterprise personalizes the recruiting process with targeted e-mail campaigns, interviews and job fairs. On campus, its "high-touch approach" involves company sponsorships of student-group projects and presentations on job skills, she says.
Keys to Management
Once hired, many millennials prefer to be managed differently from the way baby boomers are accustomed to. Pay attention to the following areas.
Work/life priorities. Millennials work to live, boomers live to work, experts say. Married with kids or not, young employees expect work/life balance, and that means flexibility. "If corporate management has a very rigid schedule, that can be a problem," says Nancy Robinson, vice president of consumer strategy at Iconoculture Inc., a consumer research firm in Minneapolis.
The millennial's attitude is, "I got my work done, so I'm going home." Boomers, who became managers by putting in long hours, may perceive this as a weak work ethic or an unwillingness to pay their dues.
Consultants' advise management to get over it and focus on results, not hours. It's time to appreciate that people have lives outside work and that technology allows many jobs to get done anywhere, anytime.
Dawn Sikorski, 28, who graduated from law school in 2005, is holding out for a job with the federal government instead of a law firm, in part because the hours are saner. The Rockville, Md., resident says of a recent internship at the U.S. Department of Justice, "I liked the focus on good-quality work. If you finished by 5 p.m., you could go home." In contrast, her current temporary work is based on billable hours.
Communication styles. E-mail and instant messaging are second nature to millennials, who were raised with computers. Not so for boomers, who prefer the phone and personal meetings. Millennials' penchant for "talking" on machines isn't worse, just different, experts say, but it can be a setup for misunderstandings.
The solution, says Jewell, is to "sit down with the millennial and ask, 'What's the best way for me to communicate with you?' " Chances are, supervisor and subordinate can arrive at a happy medium, with each adapting a bit to the other. For instance, the open door can replace "appointments only."
It's also best to use precise words because millennials are not big on nuance. "[Millennial] employees have a tendency to be much more direct in their communication. Boomers tend to think and choose their words carefully," says Margaret Downey, director of training, development and culture at CSX Corp., a rail transportation company based in Jacksonville, Fla. The upshot: Boomers may view millennials as blunt or rude.
Managerial training at CSX includes a presentation on generational differences to "help people understand there has to be give and take in both directions. We give each generation communication strategies to be more effective," Downey says. That's key for a company with an aging, 35,000-person workforce that includes 63 percent boomers and 4 percent millennials, she adds.
Coaching and growth opportunities. Millennials want to learn quickly. They want to work with people across an organization, not just in their department. They want experience outside the job for which they were hired.
Millennials think "skills," not "career," says Jewell, because "they don't trust companies to keep them employed."
Older managers who climbed the corporate ladder may view this behavior as impatience or an inability to commit to a company or a job, but they should stop judging these eager employees and coach them, management consultants say.
That's not to say managers should roll over and play dead. "Managers have to have a bottom line. What's the 20 percent of rules that can't change?" says Trudy Sopp, co-executive director of the Centre for Organization Effectiveness, a leadership institute in San Diego.
Millennials respect authority but not blindly, says Jim Concelman, manager of leadership training at Pittsburgh-based Development Dimensions International. They want to be coached, but they balance their elders' advice against that of peers and other sources. It's a different perception of power.
"If they're working for someone who's a heavy-handed manager, they'll leave," he says.
PricewaterhouseCoopers formalizes coaching by matching each of its 2,000 partners with 10 to 12 employees. The partners "check in with you on your life and your career" and help instill "a sense of feeling connected to the firm," says Allyn.
The firm also provides frequent feedback, another important aspect of managing millennials. Annual performance reviews don't work for this generation.
"Once or twice a year is not enough. They want a lot of recognition. They want specific feedback on an ongoing basis," says Eva Har-Even, an executive coach at WJM Associates Inc. in New York.
PwC managers have 30 days to respond to employee requests for feedback after a project ends. By the end of a year, employees have six to 10 feedback forms instead of one annual review. Managers are taught how to give more and better feedback. "The idea is to write a lot of narrative," Allyn explains.
Keeping millennials on board can be challenging, experts say. They have little allegiance to employers because they've seen their hard-working parents downsized and forced into early retirement, says Rothberg.
To retain them, treat them respectfully as individuals while providing them with interesting work and chances to expand their skills and contacts, consultants say. "They don't want to stagnate and do the same thing," Har-Even says.
And loosen up. A little fun and flexibility at work can go a long way. At CSX, the management trainees play softball and go rock climbing. At Enterprise, they volunteer for local charity events.
It's all about helping employees succeed. Managers who rise to the challenge will be rewarded with hard-working problem-solvers who will become the next generation of workplace leaders.
Har-Even concludes, "It's important to understand this generation. They can be a gold mine."