The Debate Over Millennial Employees
Two dueling essays have been showing up in my Facebook feed and I thought they both presented some ideas worth exploring. The first is a post by Elizabeth McLeod at LinkedIn. Elizabeth is a Millennial herself and offers her opinion about what is wrong with the employers her generation work for:
1. You tolerate low-performance. It’s downright debilitating to a high achiever. I’m working my heart out and every time I look up Donna-Do-Nothing is contemplating how long is too long to take for lunch. I start wondering why leadership tolerates this. Is that the standard here? No thanks.
2. ROI is not enough for me.I spent Sunday thinking about how I can make a difference to our customers. Now it’s Monday morning, what do I hear? Stock price. Billing. ROI. …Suddenly, my Monday power playlist seems useless. I’m sitting in a conference room listening to you drag on about cash flow. 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 report.
3. Culture is more than free Panera. Don’t confuse culture with collateral…I need to be surrounded by people who are on fire for what we’re doing. I need a manager who is motivated to push boundaries and think differently. Working in a cool office is really awesome. So is free lunch. But a purposeful culture is more important.
4. It’s ok to get personal. Treat me like a number? I’ll return the favor. This job will quickly become nothing more than my rent payment. I’ll start living for Friday and counting down the minutes until 5. After a few months of that, I’ll probably have a drunken epiphany and realize I want more out of my life than this…I was raised to believe I could change the world. I’m desperate for you to show me that the work we do here matters, even just a little bit. I’ll make copies, I’ll fetch coffee, I’ll do the grunt work…I’ll give you everything I’ve got, but I need to know it makes a difference to something bigger than your bottom line.
I’ll admit, this was a tough one for me to get through. While my first reaction was to suggest that Elizabeth needs to grow up a bit, I tried my hardest to instead empathize with her on her observations. Elizabeth sounds like she wants to change the world and that is pretty awesome, but she doesn’t sound like she understands that companies are also really hard to run. Yes, talk about cash flow can be boring…until you don’t get a paycheck because the cash flow disappeared. Managing isn’t always about inspirational speeches and leading the charge. Sometimes it’s about asking why we had 20 hours of overtime last week and figuring out how to spend less on copy paper.
Is Donna-Do-Nothing the average employee or an outlier? Is Elizabeth more focused on being a superstar, or worried about how unfair it is that everyone doesn’t work as hard as she does? Every company I have ever worked for has an Elizabeth and a Donna. The rest of the employees fall somewhere in between. Keeping your intensity when everyone around you is slacking is a lesson that isn’t learned overnight.
Culture is important and this is probably where I do agree with Elizabeth. Feeling proud of the company you work for makes it a hell of a lot easier to get out of bed in the morning. Having an equally motivated team of coworkers? Even better. When it comes to culture though, that’s where the average employee can make the biggest difference. Company culture is changed at the grass roots level and in my experience even one employee can impact dozens of people around them with the right attitude. This is how movements start, even within big companies. If I could convince Elizabeth of one thing, it is the idea that you can truly lead from the bottom when it comes to company culture.
As for companies that ‘make a difference’ this probably depends most on your perspective. It’s easy to see your company’s mission as inferior if you are only focused on what happens inside your four walls. Elizabeth seems most motivated by her employer patting her on the back and telling her she is contributing to a noble cause. Working for herself, her coworkers and her customers is where the real reward comes from.
J.T. O’Donnell writes about the other side of this conversation at Inc. She outlines the three reasons that companies are frustrated with millennials.
1. Employers don’t want to be parents. Growing up, Millennials were coached their entire lives and they unknowingly assume employers will coach them too. However, the relationship isn’t the same. An employer pays us to do a job. We are service providers. Expecting extensive training and professional development to do the job doesn’t make financial sense. In many employers’ minds (especially, small to midsized businesses with limited budgets and resources), Millennials should foot the bill to develop themselves and make themselves worth more to the employer.
2. The anti-work attitude isn’t appreciated (or tolerated). As explained here, Millennials tend to work only the minimum time expected – and will push for flexibility and a reduced work schedule to create more time for other pursuits. Being demanding about when and how they want to do their job can be viewed as disrespectful. They’ll fire the Millennial worker and find someone who can work when they need them to – and without the attitude.
3. Millennials’ happiness isn’t the employer’s responsibility.Millennials are pretty vocal about wanting work to be a “fun” place to go. Besides career development, they also desire lots of cool perks and benefits to make their job feel more rewarding. Besides nice work spaces, amenities like gym memberships, healthy meals on-site, in-house parties, etc., are being used in an effort to attract and maintain Millennial workers. Unfortunately, this is backfiring on employers – and that makes them angry. In spite of all the perks to keep them happy, Millennials are getting to these jobs and quickly showing visible signs of disappointment and dissatisfaction within months of joining the company.
As much as I had trouble reading what Elizabeth had to say, I found myself nodding my head while reading O’Donnell’s piece. She has many of the specifics correct. There is a lot of entitlement among well-educated Millennials just hitting the job market. Occupy Wall Street put this on full display several years ago. But it wasn’t all their fault. Many of them were sold a false narrative by their college counselors about what a degree would for them. At the same time they were told by their parents that they could do anything they wanted. O’Connell addresses this at the end of her essay.
Part of the problem is how much external motivators were used on Millennials growing up. In the book Punished by Rewards, Alfie Kohn argues that Millennials have an addiction to praise, perks, and other incentives to learn–better known as bribes. Thus, when they get to the job and the newness wear off, they think it’s the company’s job to fix it with more incentives. But, this is where the cycle of bribing has to stop. A company can offer only so much in the form of compensation and benefits. The reality is that Millennials (like all workers) must learn to find intrinsic motivation (internal drive for work), so they can find real satisfaction and success in their careers. Since Millennials haven’t learned this yet, they’re experiencing sadness and confusion in the workplace. Unfortunately, their unhappiness is transparent to employers who have no desire to pay for what they perceive as a bad attitude at work.
Anecdotal experience is hard to use when making broad points but in recent years I have seen plenty of motivated Millennials in our company. I am currently working with a 22-year-old, new to our group, that puts veterans with decades of service to shame. To put it simply, she gets it. She understands that companies do offer on-the-job training, but it comes in the form of experience. She is watching our senior staff make decisions, both good and bad, and studying them with the eye of a student. If I was buying stock in employees, she would be an easy investment.
The biggest thing lacking among Millennials, from my vantage point, is old fashioned patience. They want everything now. Part of this is youth, part of it is the way they were raised, but this is almost exclusively a trait of college-educated employees. Ironically, our younger employees that are not college-educated are also the ones most willing to take things slow. They know they need to keep developing their skills. They bide their time, adding experience month after month. Lately, when I see one of them add a new tool to their toolbox, often because they accepted a tough assignment and knocked it out of the park, I tell them, “You just added another line on your resume.” I want our team to understand that they are making themselves more valuable employees every day. And furthermore, I want them to see that I am still learning too.
My biggest fear about Bernie Sanders’ message to the youth of our electorate is that he seems to be playing on their insecurities and anger with his brand of populism. He sympathizes with them, promises them a lot of things and doesn’t seem to say much about the importance of starting from the bottom. His counterpoint on the other side of the aisle, Donald Trump, talks about hard work and bootstraps, a concept my friends on the Right believe in strongly. While I shudder at the thought of either one of these men in the White House, I would pay good money to see them debate these ideas.
As is so often the case, the answer is somewhere in the middle. Millennials bring much-needed energy and idealism into the workforce. The worst thing we can do is to kill that by asking them to simply join the machine. At the same time, we have to temper their exuberance with an injection of reality. They need to understand that the company they work for got where it is because they did something right. We want to hear their ideas, harness their energy and have them grow with us…we just don’t have the luxury of treating each of them like a snowflake.