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Accommodating a New Workforce: An Unmanageable Generation?


by Alex Alusheff, for SIOP

Study suggests helpful methods managers can adopt when working with Millennials

Negative stereotypes of Millennials in the workplace can be a setback for organizations, leading to a loss of talent and productivity. However, managers’ understanding and acceptance of differences among generations can help reverse that problem.

Within the next decade, Millennials (those born between 1980 to the mid to late 1990s) will account for more than half of the workforce, according to a Pew Research Center survey, amplifying the need for a smooth transition into the workplace.

With members of this generation now entering the workforce, attracting, motivating, and retaining them falls upon the skills of the manager, according to SIOP members Chad Thompson and Jane Brodie Gregory, who presented a framework for managing Millennials at the 27th Annual SIOP Conference in April.

Other generations and managers tend to think Millennials are stereotypically disloyal, needy, entitled, and casual when it comes to their expectations of work, said Thompson, a managing director of Consulting and Assessment at Taylor Strategy Partners, a talent acquisition and talent management consulting firm based in Columbus, Ohio.

As Millennials themselves, Thompson and Gregory encountered these assumptions about their generation in conversation among colleagues in their own workplaces. They sought to challenge the assumptions and portrayals in the popular press with actual research to shed light on what might or might not be legitimate.

“We wanted to foster understanding of differences and why these perceptions may be held by others,” Thompson added.

By analyzing the current perceptions of Millennials in the workplace, the two developed a framework for future research on this topic.

Although there are some distinct differences among generations, one of the challenges of attributing characteristics to Millennials is that it’s hard to distinguish from what people are like in their 20s, said Gregory, a consultant with PDRI . However, the Millennial generation does possess some characteristics that differentiate them from older workers.

A key for managers to attract, motivate, and retain Millennials is to understand that the stereotypes of this generation can actually be misunderstood.

"Expectations of work are different with every generation," she added. "People don’t stay with the same business for 30 years anymore. The loyalty is not there on either end – with the employee or the employer.”

They've seen their parents work for years just to get laid off, she said.

Witnessing these events has changed how Millennials think of their employers so they've adapted to more of a free-agent model relationship with their organizations and jobs, which can be mistaken for disloyalty, Gregory said.

Another stereotype of Millennials is that they do not want work in an office setting as much as others. However, Thompson said, this may simply be the result of a different mindset of work.

"For the Millennial, work is what you do and less of a place you go," he said.

"If all you need is a laptop and a Blackberry, why sit in an office when you can do work anywhere?" Gregory asked.

Environmental factors like standardized testing and growing up with technology have manifested themselves in how Millennials work, turning them to focus more on outcome rather than process, Thompson said.

Throughout their study, Thompson and Gregory analyzed each stereotype, explaining how characteristics were negatively perceived and how managers can adapt. They determined that interaction is essential. Gregory and Thompson suggest managers recognize these unique characteristics while promoting better relationships among managers and employees.

“People don’t leave jobs, they leave managers,” she said.

The more managers understand about Millennials, the easier the workplace environment becomes.

"If managers and human resources are going to leverage Millennials, they need to understand what is an actual difference of their generation and what is a misperception," Thompson explained.

Gregory suggested leveraging Millennials’ knowledge and comfort with technology by pairing them up with an older mentor. Using this technique, the older mentor better learns the technological aspect of work and the Millennials learn how to better acclimate to the workforce, he explained.

The Baby Boomers were the first generation to work heavily in knowledge-based jobs, and as they retire, that transfer of knowledge is really important, Thompson said.

In order to facilitate this knowledge transfer, communication among the generations is important. However, negative perceptions on both sides work to inhibit relationships that make this transfer smooth, Thompson said.

The best thing managers can do to avoid any degradation of productivity in the workplace is to build genuine relationships with their workers, Thompson and Gregory suggest. Managers should focus on adopting a coaching approach, cultivating a relationship steeped in trust, and getting to know Millennials on a personal level, Gregory added.

Some managers got promoted quickly but weren't trained to supervise people, she said. However, that skill can be groomed.

"It's important that the organization pays attention to who is managing," Gregory said.

"Supervisors should understand that they are viewed as a mentor by Millennials, even if you don't want to be one," Thompson added.