For years, employers have been aware of employee engagement and retention issues in their workplaces. These organizations have engagement policies that typically address engagement for the organization under one policy, without any differentiation for the generations of employees. As the millennial generation (also commonly known as Gen-Y and includes births from 1982 – 2000) grows in the workforce and baby boomers retire, managers and human resources professionals will need to develop new engagement models take into account the generational differences between baby boomers and millennials. In this article, I will highlight some of the characteristics that differentiate millennials from other generations and explain why employee engagement should be top of mind for managers.
Baby boomers are currently the largest generation of active workers. Research has shown that boomers identify their strengths as organizational memory, optimism, and their willingness to work long hours. This generation grew up in organizations with large corporate hierarchies, rather than flat management structures and teamwork-based job roles.
Millennials have a drastically different outlook on what they expect from their employment experience. Millennials are well educated, skilled in technology, very self-confident, able to multi-task, and have plenty of energy. They have high expectations for themselves, and prefer to work in teams, rather than as individuals. Millennials seek challenges, yet work life balance is of utmost importance to them. They do, however, realize that their need for social interaction, immediate results in their work, and desire for speedy advancement may be seen as weaknesses by older colleagues.
The millennial generation is the largest age group to emerge since the baby boom generation, and as this group grows significantly as a proportion of the workforce over the next 20 years, employers will need to make major adjustments in their engagement models. Motivating, engaging, and retaining people will never cease as managerial priorities, but employers will have to carefully consider what strategies they will use to cultivate and retain valuable millennial employees now and into the future?
The Millennial difference
Millennials are creating a change in how work gets done, as they work more in teams and use more technology. Their social mindset, however, is also a significant factor. As Leigh Buchanon writes in Meet the Millennials, “One of the characteristics of millennials, besides the fact that they are masters of digital communication, is that they are primed to do well by doing good. Almost 70 percent say that giving back and being civically engaged are their highest priorities.”
Coupled with the socially minded millennial comes their desire to be creative. Millennials have grown up in a time where information has become available instantly. Through a Google or Wikipedia search, answers to even quite complicated questions can be found. As such, millennials have developed into a group that wants to work on new and tough problems, and ones that require creative solutions. In a 2009 article by Tamara Erickson, a millennial who had been struggling in her role, admitted to peers that, “I guess I just expected that I would get to act on more of my ideas, and that the higher ups here would have figured out by now that the model’s changing.” (Gen Y in the Workforce, Tamara Erickson, Harvard Business Review, February 2009)
The millennial employee is interested in feedback on his or her performance. But traditional semi-annual reviews are too infrequent for millennials. They want to know that they’ve done a good job, and they want to know now. A 2008 article in Nonprofit World provides readers with a checklist on the topic of providing millennial feedback. The list includes: give them checklists, offer plenty of help, reward them for innovating and taking appropriate risks, engage them with frequent feedback, provide them with mentors, create a collegial and team-oriented culture, etc. Feedback must also be given in such a way that millennials are receptive.
Not only are the timing and frequency important, but so too is the way in which feedback is framed and delivered. In Joanne Sujanski’s article “Don’t be so touchy! – The secret to giving feedback to millennials,” she writes, “Instead of feeling appreciated, however, the few short accolades of “good job” were overshadowed in the employee’s mind by the more frequent criticisms he received – without guidance as to how exactly he could improve.” (SuperVision, December 2009). Sujanski reaches an insightful conclusion: Whether positive or negative, feedback needs to be structured in a way that leaves no room for misunderstanding. Feedback needs to be clear and specific to be effective.
How to engage Millennials
Creating engagement strategies is one of management’s big goals. But managers who have developed successful strategies for retaining boomers are going to have put those strategies in the corporate archives. Creating strategies to engage millennials requires a whole different approach – and strategy.
My research explored multiple key issues around millennials and engagement. I continued to keep two main thoughts in mind throughout. First, are millennial and baby boomer engagement needs different? Are they different enough to warrant different engagement strategies for each generation? And second, I wanted to identify which engagement drivers were appropriate for each generation. Using both quantitative analyses, which utilized employee engagement survey data from over 3,500 millennial and baby boomer respondents in six companies, as well as 10 qualitative interviews, I compiled conclusions that are relevant for senior leaders responsible for engagement policies.
When it comes to employee engagement, I concluded that generational differences do exist between millennials and baby boomers. As the social characteristics of the generations differ, it seemed plausible at the outset that the ways in which employees become satisfied with their work and bring both their bodies and their minds to work every day would be different. In pushing these findings further and into practice, employers should adopt the belief that to sustain prolonged engagement, they must understand carefully manage the engagement drivers and threats.
To give you an idea of what engagement drivers (an increase in the perception of the driver generates an increase in engagement) and engagement threats (a decrease in the perception of the driver generates a decrease in engagement) are part of the overall engagement equation, here is a subset of the full list of drivers and threats measured in the study: career opportunities; corporate social responsibility; employee health and well-being; employer reputation; learning and development; managing performance; senior leadership, and work-life balance.
As part of the outputs from my analysis, “Managing Performance” and “Career Opportunities” were viewed as the most important engagement drivers. “Employer Reputation” and “Managing Performance” were viewed as the most important engagement threats.
In the interviews, participants shared the following observations on their engagement experience with employers.
- “If corporations wish to motivate and engage their workforce, a one-size fits all approach will not work. Middle management should be tasked and empowered to manage employee engagement on a micro scale. The corporation should be tasked on managing engagement on a macro scale.”
- “Many baby boomer employees with greater than 30 years experience with the company recognize the need to be flexible, adapt to new conditions and work as a team. Another portion of this group, however, are ‘stuck’ in old habits and are not flexible to new changes. A smaller but growing group of millennials with less than 5 years experience are eager to learn and develop, and are flexible to change.”
- “There has been a focus in the last couple of years to train and retain top talent. This involves making sure these individuals have access to different opportunities including business development, challenging/interesting engagements and international assignments.”
- “If I get feedback from above as to if what I am doing is ok, needs changes, should do more or less, etc., I do not care about the message. I am very receptive to even quite negative feedback, but I like knowing where I stand, and I like knowing what the expectations are and how I’m stacking up.”
Engagement is a measure where inputs vary in the overall engagement equation across organizations. One company cannot necessarily imitate the engagement practices or use the engagement variables of another to achieve success. The job of managers and human resources professionals responsible for engagement is to know that there are generational differences, and that the engagement drivers for their company will not always be the same as their leading competitor, business partner, or parent company. By buying into this notion, leaders should begin conversations in their own organizations in pushing to learn which drivers they can adjust to increase engagement, and which drivers they must protect to prevent decreases in engagement across generations.
Below, I discuss the key findings from the study.
Generational gaps do exist. The results reveal that employee engagement differences are likely to exist across generations. These gaps have distinct impacts on employee engagement. While companies have unique drivers within their organizations, there were trends among the participating companies in this study that indicate which drivers are more likely to become high priority for employees (managing performance, recognition, career opportunities). Furthermore, this study helped identify that drivers can be categorized by generation. This is a new learning not currently discussed in existing research.
Having an engagement strategy is not enough. By looking in detail at the results, companies can understand those drivers on which boomers and millennials are aligned – and those on which they are not aligned. Whether a driver is more or less important for millennials is only the first indicator. Should there be a difference in how millennials and boomers react to a driver, the larger the gap between generations, the larger the opportunity for making adjustments will be. For example, data from one company in the study, where intrinsic motivation was a key engagement driver, suggested that 11 percent more boomers get a sense of accomplishment from their work than millennials. Increasing the statistic for millennials would offer increases in overall engagement for millennials. In the same company, there was only a difference of 3 percent across generations relating to People / HR Practices (“Our people / HR practices create a positive work environment for me”). When using engagement survey data, managers can use the data to identify and prioritize the largest opportunities to improve engagement (focus first on intrinsic motivation in the company above before People / HR Practices). A key challenge will exist around creating approaches to engagement that are perceived as equitable across generations.
Managing performance is the most frequent engagement driver. Across all six companies that participated in my study, the performance management process was one of the top five drivers. Performance management also appeared as the number one overall driver during millennial interviews. This takeaway relates directly to existing research on millennials’ need for feedback discussed earlier in the article. Existing research communicates that the timing (without delay), frequency (often), and way in which feedback is delivered (clear and specific) impacts millennials. The importance of this organizational process is essential in managing engagement.
Employer reputation is the most frequent engagement threat. Across all six companies, employer reputation was one of the top five engagement threats. This learning suggests that highly engaged employees are proud of the organizations they work for. When perceptions of employer reputations decrease, a similar decrease in engagement spreads throughout the workforce. This finding is profound; engaged employees are emotionally attached to their organizations, and when employer reputation changes, so do relationships of employees with employers.
So, how can you as a manager take the key learnings from this article and translate them into action? Engagement is becoming more important than ever and talent retention can act as a key competitive advantage for businesses over the coming years. With the high costs of employee turnover, peaking at up to 150 percent of the employee’s annual salary, engagement and retention initiatives done properly will have a significant impact on an organization. Below, I discuss my key recommendations developed from this work.
Conduct annual engagement studies. To facilitate the engagement monitoring process, firms should be conducting annual engagement studies. The measurement and monitoring process must be managed carefully. Employers must recognize that surveys and other internal data collection activities may become cumbersome for employees. To ensure participation and buy-in from those asked to contribute, employers must be able to demonstrate the strategic value of the studies to employees and show tangible outcomes as a result of doing the work.
Ensure transparent processes. Engagement monitoring needs to be transparent. Ensuring transparency is a critical element of success for new program development. The process and results must be presented to all stakeholders clearly and the participants must be shown how their participation is making a positive impact on the organization.
Identify key engagement drivers and threats that most significantly impact workforces. Employers should be benchmarking themselves against these drivers, which will act as the key metrics for monitoring.
Set appropriate targets and goals for your engagement strategy. Goal-setting exercises must be properly designed in order to develop reasonable targets. There are multiple ways to think about setting targets. Implications for employees must be considered when deciding which approach to use. Ask whether targets should be designed to increase all engagement drivers, or if the focus should be on the top two to three key drivers.
Have multiple strategies. The research has proven that differences across generations have a meaningful impact on engagement. Employers should design strategies for each of their major employee groups: baby boomers, generation Xers, and millennials. By doing this, employees across generations should become more engaged, and will hopefully notice the commitment their employers have made in improving their employee experience.
Assign engagement champions. By designating an individual to champion the engagement monitoring and evaluation process, a key role is created in the organization. This person should liaise with all stakeholders, including managers, employees from each generation, and human resources. The champion should be responsible to collect and share information from across the organization relating to engagement. In large organizations, this role will be an important communication channel that spreads news, results, ideas, and feedback.
Give proper discretion to managers. In order to generate successful engagement monitoring and progress, it is recommended and essential that managers be given appropriate discretion and authority in managing employees. Because millennials are highly relationship based and require frequent and specific feedback, managers must have the power to reward and recognize when appropriate. Without this power, organizations will face difficulty in executing their engagement strategies. The execution of the strategy is just as important as having the strategy itself, as employees’ engagement levels are the result the strategy.
Organizations will be better positioned to engage and retain their workers simply by committing to understanding engagement drivers within their companies and by recognizing differences across generations of employees.
For managers, the above discoveries should spark important questions as they reflect on their own engagement strategies. Have they been considering the right engagement variables for their organizations? Are baby boomers and millennials still considered one and the same when it comes to engagement?
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