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Don't Be Too Quick to Stereotype Millennials

The different generations share similarities in the workplace

A group of people sitting at an outdoor table.

Millennials are notorious jobhoppers with no employer loyalty, and they need a trophy just for showing up.

Sound familiar? Those are some of the stereotypes associated with the generation born between 1981 and 1997. It's important, though, that employers understand the distinction between generational differences and the vagaries of youth and that they not unfairly label an entire age cohort, said speakers at the recent WorldatWork Total Rewards Conference in Washington, D.C.

[SHRM members-only Express Request: How to Engage and Retain Millennial Workers]

"Millennials have their challenges," acknowledged Amy Stern, director of employee engagement research for Minneapolis-based BI Worldwide, which specializes in employee engagement. She was one of the speakers for the session "On Their Terms: Engaging Millennials."

"But these challenges may be due to their age or [job] position level, not to their generation," she added. "Millennials are more like the rest of the workforce than they are different."


 A 2016 survey report from BI Worldwide, for example, found that among 2,347 respondents, 30 percent of Millennials and 21 percent of non-Millennials said they wished they worked somewhere else. The online survey was conducted globally in October 2016 with full-time, English-speaking employees at companies with 500 or more employees.

And 25 percent of Millennials and 16 percent of non-Millennials said they planned to leave their organization within the next 12 months.

"A lot of Millennials haven't quite found their niche" in the work world and are more likely to leave an employer to gain the experience they need to advance their careers, Stern said. That's not uncommon for young workers: When audience members were asked if any of them are working for the same employer they had when they graduated college, no one raised a hand. But this does pose an opportunity for HR professionals with foresight, Stern said.

"If you can help your Millennials see their future in your organization, you can keep some highly talented people."

One way to engage employees is to help them thrive on the job. If a position that the employee is interested in is not available, Stern advised managers to find other ways to help that employee gain the skills necessary to advance his or her career, such as taking on a project.

"Recruitment, selection and training are now often structured to highlight employees' career potential and growth," wrote lead researcher Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D., professor in the psychology department at San Diego State University, in a September 2010 paper for The Journal of Management. "For example, organizations no longer provide training just to meet the minimum job requirements of the current job; training is designed to help employees reach their full potential."

Meaningful Work 

Millennials make up a large portion of the workforce for Sunglass Hut, headquartered in Milan, Italy. That includes employees who staff its kiosks at malls, according to Christy Thompson, vice president, human resources, for Sunglass Hut at Luxottica Retail North America in Cincinnati.

It's important, she said, that managers remind all employees, "Hey, this is why your job matters."

"If we can help them to remember that, that can be a really powerful experience," she said.

Taking pride in doing meaningful work applies to non-Millennials as well. Baby Boomers (born 1946-64), members of Generation X (born 1961-81) and Millennials value intrinsic rewards more than all other rewards, according to research from Twenge and her co-authors.

This suggests, they wrote, "that U.S. workers of the past three generations have all valued intrinsically motivating work."


Millennials may have the reputation for expecting a trophy simply for participating in an activity—a practice their Boomer parents implemented—but all employees like being recognized for their efforts, Stern and Thompson noted.

A message congratulating a team for meeting a sales goal—and noting the impact it had on a particular area—or an individual note praising an employee's positive attitude with customers can be powerful.

Additionally, individual recognition can have a domino effect among employees. BI Worldwide's survey found 25 percent of Millennials who received a personal accolade also recognized a co-worker; 11 percent who received a group recognition recognized a co-worker.

Addressing Stereotypes 

In a news release, William A. Schiemann, Ph.D., CEO of Metrus Group, a business management consultancy in Branchburg, N.J., suggested some ways employers can address stereotypes in their organizations:

  • Expand diversity and inclusion training. Too many of these programs, he noted, focus primarily on race and gender and fail to address generational and other stereotypes.
  • Make time, such as in a town hall or other forum, to discuss stereotypes.
  • Role play. Have employees pretend to be a member of a different generation and ask them to project how they think someone with that generational label would talk and interact. This is a way for employees to see how they are making assumptions that may be untrue.
"It is time to overcome traditional and emerging stereotypes," he said, "and begin thinking about how your organization can leverage those differences to be more innovative and to begin matching the energy of the individual with the energy of the organization."

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