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Reducing New Employee Turnover Among Emerging Adults

Ann graduated from Robert Morris University in Chicago with a bachelor's degree in law office management in 2013, and when she landed her first job with a midsize law firm, she was excited about her new career.

But when Ann (not her real name) arrived the first day, it was obvious that the partners hadn’t given much thought to the role of their new office manager. They gave her a desk near the receptionist and told her to “sit tight” while they figured out what to do with her.

On the second day, they told Ann to be patient; they were working out the details. On the third day, an associate attorney asked her to help him out with some secretarial work. Since she had good secretarial skills (and nothing else to do), she agreed. The next day the managing partner informed her that, in addition to being the office manager, she would serve as the attorney’s secretary.

By the end of the second week, it was clear that the job was more secretarial than managerial. She decided that she’d rather be unemployed than unhappily employed—so she quit.

“Up to 20 percent of turnover takes place in the first 45 days,” said Michelle Smith, vice president of Marketing for O.C. Tanner, an employee recognition and incentives consulting company in Salt Lake City. “This number is even higher with ‘emerging adults.’ They define success differently than other generations. If a job isn’t meaningful to them, they aren’t afraid to leave.”

A 2013 Georgetown study confirms that, on average, Millennials change jobs 6.3 times from ages 18 to 25.

“There’s a common perception that Millennials are too impatient,” said Haydn Shaw, a generational expert and the author of Sticking Points: How to Get 4 Generations Working Together in the 12 Places They Come Apart (Tyndale House Publishers, 2013). “But a lot of their job-hopping is age- and stage-appropriate. They are still actively exploring options.”

Kayla Buell, age 25, is a contract administrator with Baptist Health South Florida in Miami and the author of Corporate Survival Guide for Your Twenties: A Guide to Helping You Navigate the Business World (Dragon Fruit, 2016). “We don’t need to leave. We’re more than happy to be loyal. As long as we’re learning and growing,” Buell said.

She has changed jobs several times, but all of her moves have been within the same organization.

“Internal mobility is really important to me,” Buell said.

This feeling is not unique to Millennials. In a survey of 7,530 LinkedIn members who recently changed jobs, not having opportunities for advancement was the No. 1 reason people jumped ship.

LinkedIn’s 2013 Global Recruiting Trends survey of 3,379 HR professionals and talent specialists also showed a disconnect between what employees know and HR’s perception of their knowledge. Sixty-nine percent of HR people believed employees knew about their internal mobility programs; 25 percent of their employees actually knew about those programs.

Make the Most of Onboarding

Brendan Browne, vice president of global talent acquisition at LinkedIn in Mountain View, Calif., says that employers need to publicize internal mobility programs during the onboarding process.

“Employers can emphasize that the company’s commitment to advancing the employee’s career doesn’t end with their hires.”

Buell believes HR can do a better job promoting the services it has to offer.

“Sometimes HR is kind of hidden, or seen as the place you go only when you’re having problems. But HR from the get-go should work to form a positive relationship with new hires, especially Millennials, so that Millennials learn to see HR as a resource.”

Before Buell started her job, HR reached out to her to explain policies, procedures and benefits. Along with other new hires, she participated in a two-day orientation program where she learned about the hospital’s mission and vision. She met people from different departments and was even introduced to the CEO. She felt recognized and appreciated.

“You have to plan their entry into the system,” Shaw said. “Give them time to adapt and learn. Don’t just throw them into the deep end and leave them alone to figure things out for themselves.”

Onboarding works best when it is a comprehensive, systematic process of integrating new employees into the organization.

A.C. Nielsen, a global marketing research firm, developed an onboarding process that integrates its annual cohort of new college graduates into the organization. During a five-day orientation week, they learn about the company and its policies, procedures and culture. They have planned free time to get to know each other and to make workplace friends that help them feel connected and engaged.

In “Onboarding New Employees: Maximizing Success” (part of the SHRM Foundation’s Effective Practice Guidelines series), author Talya Bauer, Ph.D., writes:

“Research and conventional wisdom both suggest that employees get about 90 days to prove themselves in a new job. The faster the new hire feels welcome and prepared for their jobs, the faster they will be able to successfully contribute to the firm's mission.”

The report identifies four successive levels of onboarding, aka “the Four C’s”:

  • Compliance—teaching basic policies and procedures.
  • Clarification—ensuring that new hires understand their job and related expectations.
  • Culture—imparting a sense of the formal and informal organizational norms.
  • Connection—helping new hires establish relationships and networks.

Self-efficacy (or self-confidence) often determines how productive and successful a new employee will become, Bauer added.

As a journalism major at the University of North Carolina in Raleigh, Olivia Barrow interned at American City Journals in Raleigh. She parlayed her internship into a professional position as a reporter with the Dayton Business Journal in Dayton, Ohio, an American City Journals affiliate.

Training notwithstanding, Barrow, 24, was nervous about her own capabilities when she first started out. She sees that same anxiety among her peers.

“The first few months are all in panic mode,” she said. “Many people don’t evaluate the job that closely because they’re too worried about not getting a job. Once they land the job, they realize that they don’t know how to do it. Early success is huge. They want to feel like they’re doing a good job.”

Although her employer didn’t have a formal onboarding process, Barrow met the CEO on her first day and had weekly meetings with her managers.

“I felt like they were really invested in me,” she said. “A lot of employers don’t do that with their new employees.”

Their investment paid off. During her three years in Dayton she was promoted to senior reporter and received three awards from the Ohio Excellence in Journalism competition. Ready to move on, she then took a senior reporter position with the Milwaukee Business Journal, another American City Journals newspaper.

While HR people are challenged to help develop successful onboarding programs and processes for other employees, many have their own war stories. When Kelly Rietow, principal of Roo Solutions, an HR consulting firm in Minneapolis, presented a seminar to a group of seasoned HR managers and directors on the topic of new hire orientation and onboarding, she was surprised at how many attendees had horror stories about their own orientation process.

When one HR manager arrived for her first day of work, her new boss showed her to someone else’s desk and took the computer away from him. That’s how the person found out that he was being replaced.

First impressions are often lasting impressions. Two months later, the HR manager left the company.

Get Clear on Managing Millennials

“A lot of managers don’t try to grow their talent,” Smith said. “This is a problem for emerging adults because they are all about learning and growth. If they aren’t learning and growing, they will leave.”

She encourages HR professionals to educate managers about the importance of coaching and mentoring new hires.

“Poor management is one of the main reasons that these new employees leave so soon,” Shaw agreed.

Shaw also emphasized the importance of role clarity. “New hires need to know what’s expected of them so they can manage their own expectations.”

Had Ann known that she was signing on for a legal secretary job, she says, she would not have accepted the position.

Smith faults poor job descriptions.

HR professionals often oversell a position, she said, because they’re being pressured to hire someone even if that person isn’t a good fit for the job.

“HR needs to push back on management to really think about their needs and craft accurate job descriptions. Otherwise, you end up with different expectations and nobody’s happy. HR can’t be passive. If they want a seat at the table, they have to be willing to stand up and be counted,” Smith said.

Managers may need to manage their own expectations. Today’s twenty-somethings are working with a different playbook than previous generations.

“We have to quit measuring turnover by Boomer standards,” Shaw said. “Millennials are going to leave you. Stop trying to get them to act like [Generation X].”

While there are always generational differences, there are also unexpected similarities. Data from the Georgetown survey shows Baby Boomers changed jobs 5.5 times from ages 18 to 25.

During this “emerging adult” life stage, people often have fewer responsibilities and greater freedom of movement. Barrow believes that her peers don’t always leave one job for a better job with another organization.

“They lose them to wanderlust,” Barrow said. “They want to see what’s out there for them.”

Employers that create opportunities for employees to move around and try different things are more likely to keep those employees engaged.

“Their boredom is your problem,” Shaw said.

To retain these employees, understand their motivations. Emerging adults want flexible work arrangements, travel opportunities, training and education, meaningful work, and internal mobility.

“Give them a voice,” Shaw said. “You may not be able to solve every problem, but you still can listen to what they have to say.”

Arlene S. Hirsch is a noted career counselor and author with a private practice in Chicago, where she specializes in working with emerging adults and their families. Her books include How to Be Happy at Work (Jist Publishing, 2003), Love Your Work and Success Will Follow (Wiley, 1995), and The Wall Street Journal Premier Guide to Interviewing (Wiley, 1999). Her website is


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