Published in the Fort Worth Business CEO magazine on June 20, 2017
he millennials are the largest generation within the United States population. With their sheer numbers – more than 83 million according to the U.S. Census Bureau – and their predilections, those born approximately between 1980 and 2000 are disrupting the workplace. While they see the changes they’re driving as positive, members of older generations in management roles often struggle with these new ways of working.
James Thompson is a baby boomer and the president and CEO of The InSource Group, a Texas technology staffing and placement firm. Julia Thompson, his daughter, works at a technology consulting firm in Chicago. Below, they discuss their views on millennials’ habits and work styles and the impact they are making in the workplace.
Julia: The millennial generation is often knocked for lacking a strong work ethic. However, within every generation there are young people who haven’t had to work hard because things and opportunities have been given to them. Is it fair to paint an entire generation with such a broad brush?
I’ve seen both sides of this. I think there are people of older generations who have had their mindset clouded by a bad experience with millennials on the job. Many young people who I went to school or work with have demonstrated that they value hard work and want to achieve something on their own.
Jim: Interesting observation, but I would ask you to consider whether you and your friends are the exception or the norm. My experience with hiring people within that age bracket is that work is fine until it interferes with their personal plans.
My definition of work ethic is someone who works a minimum of 40 hours a week and is productive during those hours. In addition, there must be an attitude that they will do what it takes to get the job done, even if that means working nights, weekends or canceling vacation time.
By this standard, how many millennials have a work ethic and, if not, why? I think it’s because mom and dad have always provided a safety net. They don’t have a fear of failure because there are minimal consequences if they do fail.
Jim: Loyalty is a word that carries a lot of baggage that can cloud the real issue. At play here are two realities – the business must make money so it can maintain its employee base and, secondly, that it’s in the employee’s best interest to remain working there. Employees need to understand that a company can’t guarantee them a job for as long as they want it; and employers must accept that employees will stay on the job as long as that job meets their career and personal goals.
To me the concept of loyalty comes down to professional conduct on both sides. And what I’ve witnessed with young hires is a lack of professionalism, such as not giving two weeks’ notice. Or moving jobs for the wrong reason. Too often I’ve seen employees leave a job as they are facing an increased amount of adversity because of the business environment and not because the new opportunity represents a true step forward. It’s a flight instead of fight response.
Julia: Millennials are redefining job loyalty. We are young and less experienced, just starting our careers. We’re not top executives with contracts and big salaries tying us to our jobs; therefore, we are freer to take risks and try something new.
We have seen those from older generations, like our parents, work at a company for decades, only to get moved aside or laid off after years of loyalty. Seeing this happen firsthand, millennials have become guarded when it comes to company loyalty. Millennials are taking a different approach – we rarely see ourselves working for one company for the majority of our careers. We will experiment with a variety of career paths and interests, and, if a company is loyal to us, then we will be loyal to them.
However, I think loyalty equates to how you fit with the company’s culture and values. We millennials need to understand that we have to do our homework before accepting a job so that we know how we will mesh with the job and company.
Flexible Work Schedules
Julia: Our digital world makes it possible to work almost anywhere at any time – responding to email at midnight, collaborating on a project over the weekend, returning phone calls from out of town. Millennials want more flexibility to go to the gym and then be back online afterward.
However, this is entirely dependent on if your position allows for this kind of flexibility. At the end of the day, the most important thing is that work gets done and performance metrics are met. However, flexible work schedules can help inject some work-life balance into a career, which keeps employees fresh, motivated and creative.
Jim: I think a flexible work schedule is fantastic if your job responsibilities are self-contained. However, if your job requires immediate collaboration with colleagues in order to get the work done, then you have to be in the office so that can happen. I think too many people want a flexible schedule but look at it selfishly and don’t consider the impact that it can have on their colleagues or the company’s bottom line.
Julia: This is a polarizing topic. I admit that we millennials love our digital communication and probably overuse it, so this is an area where young people will have to change their habits. If we want to advance in our careers, then we’ve got to become adept at interpersonal communications and not hide behind texting. Digital-only isn’t the best path to success in business, as there is no replacement for good, old-fashioned face-to-face communication. You’ve got to have conversational skills.
Jim: I agree. It’s naïve to think you can conduct business that way. People who are successful in business are adept at communicating in multiple ways. So in addition to becoming proficient with face-to-face communication, millennials needs to increase their skills at writing persuasive and informative emails — and knowing when the situation calls for an email or an in-person meeting. I had an employee send me a quick email asking for approval of a major expenditure thinking I would rubber-stamp it. I replied that I expected a thorough analysis of the reasons for the expenditure presented in person followed by a discussion about it before I made a decision.
Julia: Many of my fellow millennials are attracted to start-ups because of the excitement and non-traditional corporate cultures. But there is a big risk to start-ups as so many of them don’t make it. They have the reputation for having unstructured organization hierarchies – that anyone can contribute and get recognition as long as they work hard and think big. That is very appealing to millennials.
However, it goes back to making sure the job and company are a fit for you. Lots of people – no matter what their age – need a more traditional structured, organized work environment with clear guidelines about responsibilities and behavior in order to be productive. For me, the important thing is that a company encourage open exchange and dialogue between executives and employees so that you approach the CEO and talk with senior leadership.
Jim: It’s important for a company is to find the organizational structure that works for its culture and goals. In today’s economy that usually means one that fosters innovation, collaboration and speed to market. Surveys indicate that millennials are attracted to start-ups with flat organizations because of the potential to make an impact quickly, but they need to realize that there are trade-offs.
I would counsel younger workers to examine other options. Flat organizations have an exciting reputation, however, the reality can be that a more structured organization may present longer-term benefits for millennials. A more hierarchical structure can provide coaching and mentoring that help younger workers develop and acquire new skills that will propel their careers forward.
Jim: Millennials will comprise 50 percent of the workforce by 2018 and 75 percent after 2025, according to labor statistics. In other words, they are a force that can’t be ignored. As a CEO, I know that our company will have to determine ways to accommodate the habits and predilections of millennials while still getting business done. My primary strategy will be to hire outliers, but I know that won’t be possible always so we need to develop a work environment that is compelling enough to attract talented millennials. It will require compromise and acceptance on both sides.
Julia: I agree with you about compromise. If there is one thing I could say to my fellow millennials, it would be that they need to understand the corporate world isn’t going to change to suit their individual needs. After all, the corporate world existed long before we came along.
If we millennials want to be successful in business, we need to learn the art of compromise. There has been a lot written critical of millennials and a lot written critical of corporate managers being resistant to change. I think if we try to understand both points-of-view, we will figure out this generational divide.
And I know our generation will have an impact on the workplace – at least until Generation Z comes along and we start complaining about them.