The Millennial Imperative: Your Business Success Depends On It

The millennial workforce has been the subject of thousands of articles, books, and more for the past decade. Even so, companies' shifts toward effective attraction and retention of millennials has been slow—and costly. Gallup found that millennial-related turnover still costs the US economy $30.5 billion annually with only 28.9% of millennials saying they are engaged at work.

Most leaders today have seen millennial team members arrive and leave quickly. They’re aware fierce competition for millennial talent lies around every corner. So, how can leaders today compete for and retain their millennial hires? Just as leaders adjust their company’s sales strategies for shifting demographics, leaders and HR departments must adjust their talent strategies to do the same.

More Than Ping-Pong Tables: Misunderstanding Millennials

When tech giants like Google began capturing worldwide attention, images of bean-bag-chair laden conference rooms, scooter rides to meetings, and ping pong tables presented an unexpected update to the modern office. Soon after, other companies began offering similar office areas to appeal to the incoming generation of workers coined “millennials.” The millennial generation (born 1981-1996) was quickly stereotyped by wanting an extended adolescence. So, CEOs believed that office settings that felt more like glorified basements would attract and keep millennial talent. A dilemma quickly emerged—and continues today. Millennials, more than previous generations, were leaving their jobs after a year or two, regardless of the ping-pong tables. Future Workplace conducted a study in 2002 that found that 91% of millennials expected to quit their jobs within three years. And things haven’t improved. Last year, studies found that employed millennials said they were planning to quit their jobs in less than two years because of a lack of engagement. This has left some C-suite leaders and HR professionals wondering, “Why such a lack of engagement?”

A central culprit stems from leaders applying misunderstandings of millennials to their talent-service strategies, namely a misunderstanding of millennial work ethic. Millennials have often been characterized as “lazy” or “entitled.” And the substantiating evidence was placed squarely on the expanding digital world. Most millennials grew up with internet access and home computers. Early cultural critics worried that the convenience of the internet would shape an entire generation around instant gratification in every sphere of life. This posture toward millennials meant that leaders saw their entrance into the workforce was more of an emergency than an opportunity. Their growing up as digital natives was first seen as an inconvenience rather than an asset. As one PROMARK coach shared:

“The stereotype that millennials are lazy, entitled, or don’t possess a solid work ethic was the first misconception held by most leaders. But millennials were also exposed to more information and able to draw upon more data than any previous generation. Virtually, millennials are ‘digital natives’ meaning they were born into the digital age and know how to leverage technology and data.”

As companies struggled to retain the first segments of millennials, leaders and researchers took note. They quickly realized that millennials possessed a unique competency: they understood the complicated, rapidly expanding digital world, which many companies wrestled to harness. Millennials were the first generation proficient and fluent in digital media and its language, having learned its in-and-outs the same time they learned geometry. Leveraging the digital world for competitive growth wasn’t going to come from the top of the org chart. It was going to come from this emerging workforce who knew their way around smartphones, social media, and blog platforms.

Paychecks with a Purpose

Millennials were the first generation with an intuition for the globalizing digital world. This meant it was a business imperative to hire and retain top millennial talent. And leaders soon learned that millennials were more than just digital natives. This emerging generation was ready for a different employer-employee relationship altogether.

Many millennials grew up with their parents in the workforce. In many cases, millennials saw parents miss significant events for work or maintain an unhealthy work-life balance, only to see their professional loyalty overlooked and discarded. Whether it was the loss of a job or moving from place to place, millennials and their families encountered the many impacts of companies resizing or restructuring. Many millennials then later rejected the employer-employee expectations their parents knew, and they sought to redefine it. When it comes to being hired, millennials look to not only put their best foot forward, but they also look for the same from the companies wanting to hire them. As one PROMARK coach explained:

Millennials understand the need to remain relevant, to not sell their souls for a corporation and to redefine the ‘employment contract.’ This has sometimes been mistakenly labeled as selfish or self-centered, but millennials actually have redefined what corporate self-sufficiency is all about. Corporations now have to prove that they (corporations) are good enough to warrant a millennial’s best efforts and full attention.

Millennials aren’t afraid to expect certain things from companies. And although they want to work hard for similar things as their parents and predecessors, a paycheck and a corporate ladder aren’t enough. Millennials want to do more than implement a company’s vision statement. They want to manifest their values through their work. The focal point of millennials’ vocational expectations is the connectedness between a company’s embodied vision and their personal values. If millennials can’t align these, they’ll look elsewhere. A recent study by Deloitte found that “[millennials] say they will not hesitate to end a relationship when they disagree with a company’s business practices. . . .” This means that the traditional retainment hooks built around compensation and benefits aren’t as appealing to millennials. Compensation matters to millennials, but they feel more compensated to know that what they do matters.

This mindset also means that millennials want more than opportunities to climb the corporate ladder. Instead, they desire professional growth experiences through sponsored continued education, intentional investment from their leaders, and collaborative work cultures that expand across silos. Millennials view improving their competencies and technical skills as improving their chances to make positive contributions to their companies and surrounding communities. Company leaders, then, must be able to articulate these values and address how their companies’ cultures demonstrate this in real time. As a PROMARK coach shared:

“Millennials want to see proof of investment in their growth, career progression versus a singular defined career path, consistency of talent-acquisition efforts with all aspects of the corporate culture, and an opportunity to contribute to something bigger than themselves.”

With these distinctives in mind, how can leaders shift their mindset to attract and retain this generation? Here are three ways.

  1. Establish flatter communication channels

    Leaders need to create places and spaces where employee voices are heard and acknowledged quickly. Millennials’ pursuit of purpose often translates into valuing when their voice is valued. And these places and spaces need to occur often and quickly, free of the constraint of an organizational chart or a chain of command. Many millennials have seen the influence social media has provided in sharing ideas (via a blog post, on Twitter, Facebook, etc.) and seeing celebrities, large corporations, global brands, and even political entities interact with them through a single online post. In the mind of a millennial, the digital world has made the world so flat that even their ideas can be seen by some of the most influential people in the world, and they want to see this translated into the workplace. Leaders need to encourage the development of processes and opportunities for millennial employees to know their ideas are heard and acknowledged by their senior leaders.

  2. Shift benefits to enable experiences

    Millennials want to work hard and play hard without waiting decades in between. They value financial stability and wealth accruement, but not as the sole path toward retirement. They value these things in as far as they allow them to meet their basic needs and gather experiences—traveling, philanthropic opportunities, etc., which is why so many millennials often opt for freelance work because of its flexibility. Leaders can flex benefit packages to enable millennials’ desire for these experiences by offering things like multiple weeks’ vacation to new hires beyond the standard two weeks, which used to be considered the territory of employees with longer tenure. Leaders can also offer paid days to volunteer in the surrounding community or subsidize philanthropic trips that allow them to offer their skill sets in other valuable ways in purpose-driven contexts. The more leaders can integrate an employee’s benefits with the value of experiences, the more millennial hires will feel valued.

  3. Implement reverse mentoring

    Popularized by former GE chairman Jack Welch, reverse mentoring is a valuable means for empowering both younger and senior employees. Reverse mentoring inverts the traditional mentoring hierarchy, and it allows younger employees (millennials) to serve as mentors to older team members. The result is a mutually benefiting transfer of knowledge, skills, and ideas. For instance, newer millennial hires can help senior team members navigate online spaces like LinkedIn and how to leverage them to develop brand awareness, lead gen, thought leadership, etc. And senior team members can provide personal knowledge of the company, nuanced business know-how, etc. Doing so affords companies great benefits like closing the knowledge gap and creating inclusive, innovative cultures. Such settings give leaders opportunities to help their millennial workforce feel confident that they’re investing in the company and are a part of its valued futured. 

At 75 million persons, the millennial generation will soon become the overwhelming majority of the workforce within the next decade. Understanding their mindset and shifting a company’s talent services in light of it is a business imperative for today’s leaders. Retaining high-quality millennial hires adds enormous value to the top and bottom line of any company. And the best part is that these shifts benefit not only millennials; they benefit everyone.

And the benefits can be experienced immediately.


For leaders ready to begin making these strategic talent-services management adjustments for the millennial segment, we’re ready to help. Contact us today.

Zac Eklund