How Employers Can Lawfully Attract Millennial Job Applicants

Tread carefully, though, to avoid ADEA claims

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. September 21, 2017

Employers want to attract Millennials, who will make up half the U.S. workforce by 2020, without violating the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), which prohibits discrimination against people who are 40 and older. By emphasizing certain workplace benefits and practices in recruiting messages, instead of focusing on age, organizations can lawfully acquire the talent they need.

Defining Characteristics

Millennials were born between 1978 and 2000. The first wave of Millennials—born 1978 to 1989—were children of the peace and prosperity of the 1990s, said Bruce Tulgan, founder of RainmakerThinking Inc., a management consulting firm in New Haven, Conn. The second wave was born from 1990 to 2000, and these individuals grew up during the time of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the Great Recession in the first decade of the 2000s. But the two waves still have similar workplace preferences.

"Millennials want to make a difference, and quickly, which means they want to have an immediate impact in their job—an ideal attitude for new hires," said Jeffrey Beemer, an attorney with Dickinson Wright in Nashville, Tenn.

Updating Recruiting Methods

Kimberly Hodges, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Memphis, Tenn., noted that "employers naturally have to make sure their recruiting efforts are reaching the needs of Millennials, since they make up such a large portion of the workforce." She added that "savvy employers seeking top talent are quickly realizing their traditional methods of recruiting and retaining employees might not be as competitive with this generation as with prior generations."

Millennials are most interested in short-term opportunities and rewards. "If you want to speak to them in a way that separates your job offer from the others right now, you have to talk about right now," Tulgan said. "You have to talk about what you have to offer them today, tomorrow, next week, this month, the first six months and the first year."

What Millennials Want

Tulgan said Millennials tend to find certain recruiting messages more attractive than others. This cohort, he explains, typically is drawn to messages that highlight:

  • Performance-based compensation. Millennials want to be assured that if they work harder and better, they will be rewarded in direct proportion to the value they add to an organization, he said.
  • Flexible schedules. The more control, the better.
  • Flexible location. To the extent that working in a particular space is required, they want some power to define their space—arrange furniture, computers, artwork and lighting—to their liking.
  • Marketable skills. Millennials want to build skills and knowledge quickly.
  • Access to decision-makers. They don't want to wait until they climb the ladder to build relationships with leaders, managers and clients.
  • Personal credit for results achieved. Millennials don't want to work hard to make somebody else look good. They want their own name on the tangible results they produce.
  • A clear area of responsibility. Millennials want to know they will have 100 percent control of an area of responsibility as their personal proving ground.
  • The chance for creative expression. Millennials don't want their creativity constrained. They want the freedom to work their own way.

Employers might want to consider featuring the recruiting messages highlighted in the sidebar above, instead of age, in job posts and recruiting messages.

"Don't promise them these things if you can't offer them," though, Tulgan said. "Overselling the job to Millennials is a big mistake" and could convince them to turn the job into a waystation for another position.

"Millennials don't look at a large, established organization and think, 'I wonder where I'll fit in your complex picture,' " he said. "Rather, they look at an employer and think, 'I wonder where you will fit in my life story.' "

They have high expectations for themselves and their employers—and particularly for their immediate bosses. The managers, Tulgan said, should "spell out the rules of their workplace in vivid detail so Millennials can play that job like a video game: If you want A, you have to do B. If you want C, you have to do D, and so on."

Lisa Finkelstein, a professor in the social-industrial organizational psychology area of Northern Illinois University's Department of Psychology in DeKalb, Ill., is skeptical, however, of lumping Millennials together in terms of their workplace preferences. "So much has been written with tips about attracting Millennials and what they want," she said. "Generalizing to what all Millennials want in a job ignores all the differences among Millennials in their talents, values, cultural backgrounds [and] desires. Not all members of a generation are the same, despite the headlines."

Don't Discourage Older Applicants

Even as they seek to recruit Millennials, employers should ensure that they don't discourage older applicants, Hodges said.

For example, recruiting materials that feature only pictures of younger workers, using the term "Millennial" or saying "recent college graduates wanted" may reflect an intent to discourage older workers from applying, which would violate the ADEA, she noted.

Job ads that specify a maximum number of years of experience also constitute unlawful age discrimination, noted Jacquelyn James, Ph.D., co-director of the Boston College Center on Aging & Work.

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: Is it illegal to ask for an applicant's date of birth?]

"Focus recruitment efforts on the type of worker that is desired—what skills, talents, characteristics [and] unique qualities are you looking for?" Finkelstein said. "That person may be from any generation—don't limit yourself."

Recruiting efforts should be directed at multiple outlets simultaneously to avoid reaching only younger applicants.

"Employers should remember that the end goal is to attract, recruit and hire the best-qualified candidates, no matter what age," Hodges said.


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