GenY: Employees From Hell or Your Best Secret Weapon?

Last Updated Aug 17, 2010 8:50 PM EDT

Talk to a small business owner for more than a few minutes and the conversation frequently shifts to how difficult it is to employ GenY'ers, or Millennials, as they're also called. Among the complaints about these young employees: they're spoiled, they don't respect authority, they're demanding, plus they insist on wearing flip-flops. Or are they simply misunderstood? That's what Neil Howe seems to think. Howe is the author of Millennials in the Workplace: Human Resource Strategies For a New Generation, and I recently heard him and his co-author, Reena Nadler, speak at the YPulse Youth Marketing Mashup in San Francisco. Their best advice: quit complaining about this generation and learn how to turn them into top performers by adjusting your HR policies to their particular characteristics. For instance:
Co-recruit Millennials and their parents. Frightening, isn't it? But Howe and Nadler point out that a significant trait of this generation is close relationships with parents; mom and dad are very likely to be consulted on important life decisions. An increasing number of companies include information for parents at career fairs or feature parents' sections on their websites. Do you have to put up with parents negotiating for promotions and raises? Absolutely not. But acknowledging their involvement in career decisions will get you a step closer to effectively engaging their kids. Howe suggests a "bring your parents to work day."

Give frequent feedback. Nadler noted that colleges are beginning to notice that once a semester "do or die" exams are driving students over the edge. The same is true in the workplace with once a year performance reviews. Members of GenY need to know how they're doing on a much more frequent basis. This a generation focused on high achievement, so they want explicit benchmarks for success and a clear path for reaching those benchmarks. So break long term projects into smaller chunks.

Celebrate success. Sure, everyone in GenY got a trophy just for showing up and as adults, they're the golden retrievers of the workforce, constantly hungry for attention and praise. But not so fast, says Nadler. "They want to raise the tone of the workplace because they think that Gen X'ers and Baby Boomers have created negative environments," she says. So bring on the Friday night pizza for a meeting a big company goal, and don't be stingy with the high fives.

Emphasize teamwork. "Today's new employees are moving away from a winner-take-all workplace culture and toward a culture of group recognition," says Howe in his book. From peewee soccer to group projects in school to their constant contact with peers via social networking sites, IM, and texting, this is a generation that's rarely alone. While Baby Boomers typically run screaming from group projects at work, GenY thrives on them. And, by the way, don't even think of blocking GMail, Facebook, and Twitter. These technologies amount to an "enormous community building group hug," says Howe.

Provide volunteer opportunities. Civic engagement is enormously important to GenY. Within the generation, volunteer rates are soaring and voting rates are rising. Nader notes that up until 2002, college seniors' list of top ten ideal employers were all large public companies like Amazon, Microsoft, and Cisco. But by 2009, the U.S. Department of State, the FBI, the Peace Corps, NASA, and Teach for America were prominent on the list, compiled by Universum Communications. So if you want to attract and retain these young employees, show them that you care about more than just the bottom line by offering them opportunities to volunteer for causes that they care about, preferably in groups (see above).

What does your company do to attract and engage young workers? Do you think they need to be treated differently from your older employees?