To Attract And Retain Millennials, Companies Must Address Generational Differences

Today organizations are no longer in a position to offer job security, with a changing economy, downsizing, mergers and competitive challenges. And employees, facing the realities of the workplace, donít feel bound to stay with an organization if something more appealing comes along

Published: Jul 12, 2010
To Attract And Retain Millennials, Companies Must Address Generational Differences
Ben Rosen, Professor of organizational behavior at the University of North Carolinaís Kenan-Flagler Business School

As senior executive baby boomers approach retirement age, companies must fill the pipeline with millennials, those entry-level employees who are 28 and younger.

And to reach that generation, companies must address their communication preferences, new research finds. The day will soon be here when a job offer could hinge on a tweet.

Since millennials prefer to communicate electronically and through social networking, forward-thinking organizations should consider Facebook, MySpace, You-Tube and Twitter as recruiting tools.

Ben Rosen, the Robert March and Mildred Borden Hanes Professor of organizational behavior at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, analyzed results of a recent survey on what prospective employees expect from an employer and how they go about learning what a company values. The results might surprise some companies that are reluctant to change.

“If you have a generation that has cut its teeth on technology, and you don’t leverage that technology to reach out to them and get your organizational image message across, you might be losing your competitive advantage,” Rosen said.

Rosen studies generational differences in the workforce. In 2008, he collaborated on extensive study about generational differences in the workforce. That research into work styles, attitudes and priorities of the three generations uncovered areas of friction among baby boomers, Gen X and millennials (also known as Gen Y) at work. For instance, millennials thought their bosses (routinely from the baby boomer category) were too consumed with work and would skew millennials’ work-life balance. Gen X thought millennials had too much of a sense of entitlement and resented picking up the slack for millennials, who set strong boundaries on work to preserve a work-life balance. Baby boomers thought millennials hid behind text and instant messaging to avoid difficult face-to-face discussions. The differing attitudes and priorities among the generations caused tension among workers and sometimes presented obstacles to smooth organizational functioning.

Rosen continued the line of research in spring 2009, when he sent an online survey to a random sample of 2,800 UNC Kenan-Flagler alumni from selected graduating classes between 1980 and 2009. This survey explored what the three generations value in an employer and how they go about finding that information. Mounting evidence suggests that millennials will not stay in a job if their expectations aren’t met. Rosen’s findings might help companies recruit and retain top young talent.

“When our economy was expanding, so many organizations just could not hire enough junior people or hold onto them long enough,” Rosen said. “Many companies were really scrambling to fill their entry-level positions with those who had the right skill sets. As we come out of the recessionary period, organizations will need to staff up again.”

When baby boomers began their careers, the “psychological contract” between employer and employee was that the company would bring new hires in at entry-level positions, train them, rotate them through jobs, promote them up the ladder and provide job security. The company was loyal to the individual, and, in turn, the individual was loyal to the company and made a career there.

Today organizations are no longer in a position to offer job security, with a changing economy, downsizing, mergers and competitive challenges. And employees, facing the realities of the workplace, don’t feel bound to stay with an organization if something more appealing comes along. In this “free agent” job market, companies have to work harder to attract and keep good people.

“Companies might wish for greater stability, commitment and loyalty from their employees,” Rosen said, “but companies are coming to grips with the fact that what they wish for isn’t going  to happen.”

Companies especially want to attract millennials and women of all ages who are suited for managerial positions. The number of women in the workplace has gone through peaks and valleys over the years. Initially, managerial positions weren’t open to women. After the glass ceiling cracked, women got disillusioned with positions that didn’t allow them to balance work and family responsibilities. Women concluded they’d be better off working for themselves. As some companies begin demonstrating greater social responsibility, women are being drawn back into corporations.

Surprisingly, Rosen’s survey revealed that when asked “What do you want from a job?” all three generations listed the same five or six priorities, including interesting and challenging work, competitive salary and opportunities for advancement.

Millennials rated the importance of a good social environment and opportunities to travel and work outside the United States higher than the other two generations. Gen X placed greater emphasis on interesting and challenging work and opportunities for advancement. Baby boomers wanted health and other benefits.

Understanding how millennials gather and digest information might be keys to attracting them. Organizations that continue to communicate with potential job applicants through traditional printed materials and formal interviews might not be getting through to Gen X and millennials.

Rosen found that millennials, in particular, sought information on company Web sites, blogs and social networking sites when assessing opportunities for advancement and the likelihood of doing interesting and challenging work. Similarly, millennials were more likely to rely on information in blogs and social networking sites to learn about an organization’s social environment and fun co-workers. They were the most skeptical of information from formal interviews, leery that they were being fed the “party line” on sensitive issues of ethics, social responsibility and diversity. All three generations greatly valued information from exchanging e-mail with current employees about the nature of the work.

In light of his findings, Rosen suggests that recruiters might highlight travel opportunities and a fun social environment through videos of current employee testimonials. These also could be posted on the company’s Web site. During formal interviews, prospective employees could be given e-mail addresses of current employees willing to talk personally about positive experiences of international job assignments and sociable co-workers. Organizations eager to get their message out to millennials might need to expand their recruiting strategies to increase their electronic presence, Rosen said, and make the most of Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and Twitter.

“Though millennials might make up 20 percent of the workforce today, in five years they could be 50 percent of the workforce,” Rosen said. “Organizations willing to use the most effective outreach media should be well-positioned to win the war for talent in the years ahead.”

[This article has been reproduced with permission from research from the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School: http://www.kenan-flagler.unc.edu/]

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