When talking to clients about their challenges with hiring and selection, we frequently hear complaints regarding millennials in the workplace. Here are the typical characterizations:
They’re lazy; they don’t know how to put in a good day’s work.
They feel entitled; when they should be grateful that they even have a job.
They aren’t loyal to the company; they just jump around from job to job.
Did that list surprise you? Probably not. These stereotypes are as pervasive as a viral YouTube video; they’re replayed over and over and over again. But, are they true and fair generalizations? Have we really raised a generation with no work ethic, gratitude, or commitment?
Surely you have encountered a millennial who puts those stereotypes to shame, challenging those ubiquitous beliefs: someone who impressed you with his/her achievements, who participated in a selfless mission trip, or who worked the same part-time job all eight years of high school and college to pay tuition. Perhaps you are a millennial, and you don’t identify with these stereotypes at all. You might be scratching your head, trying to figure out how your generation got such a bad rap. How do we resolve the dissonance between personal experience and popular belief?
This past April, I attended a panel discussion (with professionals from Dell, ESPN, Merck, Sitel, and others) that challenged assumptions about millennials in the workplace and helped reconcile these conflicting views:
1) We must remember that millennials are in the early stages of their adult life and their careers.
They haven’t figured out what career they want, where their path is headed, or even how to get there. What seems like a lack of loyalty or shameless job hopping is more likely a journey of self-discovery. As millennials experience different work environments and responsibilities they become more aware of they do and do not want from their jobs. Along the way, they uncover their strengths as well as areas ripe for growth, in order to better position themselves for future career opportunities. In the profound words of Tolkien, “Not all those who wander are lost [or terrible, or ungrateful].” Okay, so I extrapolated a bit… but the point remains.
2) Millennials are not only figuring out what they want to do but how they should do it.
Navigating the workplace is much different than following school rules, getting good grades, or keeping a part-time job. The full-time, adult workplace has a decorum all its own. For new hires, it’s critical that the orientation and training process provide tools and resources related to the actual job tasks. For young people, it’s particularly important to help them understand the unwritten rules, too: don’t check your cell phone every 5 minutes; be early for your shift so you have time to settle in; dress for respect, not for Vogue. These tips and tricks may seem obvious to a seasoned worker, but they are not intuitive to everyone. I bet most of us can recall a time when we committed a faux pas in our early career and wish we had been mentored otherwise!
3) Millennials come in all colors, shapes, and sizes – and so do other generations.
Consider this: what’s valuable to me is not the same as what’s valuable to you. In fact, where I’m most productive, what I enjoy most in the workplace, and how motivated I am to succeed is rooted in both my nature as well as my “nurture” – how and where I grew up. Not only are my preferences and behaviors different from those I am dissimilar to (in age, race, sex, neighborhood, etc.) but they are also different from those I am similar to (in age, race, sex, neighborhood, etc.). Researchers classify these types of variance as “across groups” and “within groups”, as illustrated below:
Millennials differ across cultures. In the US, call center positions often make millennials cringe – they can be grueling and emotionally taxing. But in the Philippines, the stability and training opportunities offered by call centers are highly sought after. This difference in perspectives/values indicates that some of what we observe as a generational phenomenon may actually be impacted by the culture we’ve shaped and developed.
Millennials differ within cultures. Workplace behaviors and attitudes are tied to personality traits and characteristics, so differences in work ethic, attitude, and organizational commitment exist even within the same culture or generation. Can you think of someone your age who is (or was) irresponsible, rude, or ungrateful? Of course you can! We’ve all worked with someone similar to us (in age, race, sex, neighborhood, etc.) who we would never lump in to the same category as us – despite our superficial similarities, we are different deep down.
One final note before you go forth to dispel myths about millennials. Perhaps the sagest advice I heard during the panel discussion was to invest time and energy in new hires—millennials or otherwise. Although you may wonder, “Why invest in millennials who are just going to leave?” the better question to ask is, “What happens if I don’t invest in them and they stay?”