My Employees Are All Millennials - Here’s How I Manage and Retain Them

February 9, 2017

I travel and speak at a lot of conferences. Perhaps you’d like my autograph? No? Fine. Anyway, people ask me a lot of questions but the one I get asked the most by far, is how I handle “all my millennials.” From heads of TA at massive corporations to small business owners who are bowled over by one of the newer, and more befuddling generations.

Despite my wild fame, they don’t ask….

How does your hair look so good?

How do you run such a successful agency in a world dominated by men?

How do you keep your girlish figure?

How DO you do it all?

Instead, they ask:

How do you manage millennials?

Okay, well the world is missing out on a tome of female beauty tips plus empowerment but when the people speak, I listen. Here are my tips for managing and retaining millennials:

1. Millennials are adults - treat them as such

I don’t know why this is so difficult for people to understand. While millennials might be younger than you, they are still adults. People don’t want to be babied, even if they have been their entire lives. So what if you buy into the trope that millennials got too many trophies as children (which we don’t at Red Branch)? You do them no favors by continuing the process with fake praise, and performance reviews that mean nothing.

I’ve screwed this up in the past. In smaller ways, such as calling my largely female project management team “girls” and in larger ways, like not directly confronting poor behavior immediately after it occurred because I am a fraidy cat.

But, according to a study by IMB called  “Myths, Exaggerations, and Uncomfortable Truths”, what we believe about Millennials is mostly wrong.They aren’t the “lazy, entitled, selfish, and shallow” workers many believe them to be. They want financial security and a diverse workplace. They want an ethical and fair boss who shares information. They want a line between work and personal lives, particularly online. They want to work in an innovative work environment.This doesn’t sound all that different from what the rest of the workforce wants, does it?

So, how do I put this into action? For starters, as early as the  interview process, I am very upfront about how long it will take, how much they will make and how hard they will work. There is an assignment for every position and we take deadlines for that very seriously. Once we have someone new in the office, we very nicely tell them how important it is to follow all policies and procedures to the letter until they know them. When someone messes up, it’s not about yelling or ranting (those are childish responses), it’s about acknowledging responsibility, finding a solution (fast) and working together to implement that. Afterward, we walk through a post-mortem to create a plan to never make that mistake again.

Even if these problem solving and accountability skills were never modeled to an intern or entry-level millennial, they learn very quickly about how we solve issues in the workplace. I tell them, plainly, that it is okay to receive critical feedback and give it while still being friends and colleagues who respect one another.

2. Confront early and often

Guess how many people love confrontation? NO ONE! Shocking, I know, but confrontation is the hardest and most useful business skill you’ll ever learn. And even more surprising, as refreshing as it is to Gen X and Boomer generations, Millennials love it even more.

Confronting early and often saves team members time and energy when you tell them they’re heading in the wrong direction on a project. Confronting with kindness can save employees from an embarrassing situation later on or alert them to a habit they are still young enough to change.

Confronting need not be limited to your interactions with employees either. Employees appreciate when you confront vendors on their behalf about unacceptable behavior or frustrating bugs. Workers appreciate when you go to bat for them with a client or demanding customer. Confronting works well when a situation needs to be sussed out between co-workers or team members.

When I tried to find an article to support this thesis statement, all I could find were articles complaining about how ineffective millennials are at confrontation. But are they? Or are we? Is it because we’re afraid to confront them or each other that millennials have not been able to figure out how to weave healthy confrontation into their lives and work? I don’t know. But I do know, as hard as it is, if you confront your millennials respectfully and often, you’ll retain them longer and have a happier workplace.

3. Praise, pride and recognition

So many recognition programs are focused on WHAT we give employees but the best ones are focused on knowing WHO they are. This is especially true when it comes to retaining millennials, as research shows, getting personal, constant feedback and promotions are all extremely important to this generation. Here’s what you should do:

Praise them immediately

Now, I am not advocating for unsolicited praise, but if you’ve committed to confronting early and often (as you should), then you must also commit to instilling praiseworthy moments into every day, or at least every week. If someone does a great job, say so. Give tasks that are both challenging and easy home-runs. Once a worker has achieved the ability to effortlessly complete a certain task, increase the knowledge base of your company by having that employee teach another employee, thus giving them the feeling of being an expert.

Immediate (earned) praise makes even more sense to a generation used to seeing feelings and work validated on a wide variety of social media. Just as important as giving praise immediately, is building a culture where no one is afraid to give the old “atta boy” or “atta girl”!

Show them how proud you are of them

At Red Branch Media, we have a weekly meeting where we do “proud-ofs, proud-ofs”. This is a simple exercise where we say one thing we’re proud of accomplishing during the workweek and select another worker we’re “proud-of.” At the end of the meeting, I go around the circle and say something I am proud of from each of them as well. Admittedly, this works far easier in a small company, but as a manager it’s something you can implement on a small team or via the company intranet or even an old-school email chain.

It’s crucial that the manager find one thing to be proud of for each team member. If you can’t, you’ve got turnovers sizzling in the oven. In addition to internal pride celebrations, you should also show pride in your team on social media or in client communications.

Recognize them in a personal way

Do you know which of your employees loves to read or who is into yoga? Are you aware of the anime devotee in your midst or know which worker likes to volunteer at animal shelters? You could easily AND make it part of your onboarding and recognition process. When someone comes on board, we build a quick survey so we get to know the person they ARE outside of work. We use this information in a variety of ways:

  • To create a blog post about the new hire showcasing their interests and new responsibilities.
  • For New Brancher Trivia, where the rest of their team competes to see how well we’ve gotten to know them in their first few days.
  • For personalized gifts. In addition to cash bonuses, we’ll get a symbolic gift we know they’d like. A lovely notebook for the writer or a GameStop card for the video game guru.
  • To build their bios for the company website.
  • To help managers understand how they might prefer to work.

More than money, more than fame and fortune, people really want to be known and understood (okay, so they wouldn’t say NO to more money). In fact, according to a recent study by research and advisory firm Bersin and Associates, organizations with reward programs in place see a 14% improvement in employee engagement and productivity, explaining why the U.S. employee incentive marketplace is estimated at $38 billion.

4. Offer variety and learning opportunities

Companies commission white papers, studies, reports and surveys to learn what millennials could have told them during the interview. They don’t want to be doing the same job, day in and day out, for the next, five years, three years or even ONE year. Remember millennials are often the youngest generation in your company, meaning they’ve spent darn near their whole lives changing classes every 3-4 months, learning new skills every semester, meeting new teams with every grade change. They learn how to deal with different teachers, classmates, colleagues and companies (during internships).

While promotions are fantastic motivators for millennials, not every company can often provide these employees with promotion opportunities every 6 months. Instead, focus on learning opportunities, teaching opportunities and skill-shifting within the organization.

Learning opportunities can take many forms. The goal is to be an organization that promotes learning both formally and informally. Some quick and dirty ideas:

  • Lunch and Learns
  • Conference Stipends
  • Online Courses
  • Speaking Opportunities
  • Webinars

Teaching opportunities are a great chance to deepen the knowledge base in your organization. At Red Branch Media, we’re huge proponents of “learn something, teach something.” A skill does your company no good if only ONE person knows how to do it. Plus, teaching helps people learn a skill even deeper and explore it in a way they may not have considered before. Ways you can encourage your millennials to teach new skills.

  • Build reports on webinars they’ve attended.
  • Create presentations on courses they’ve completed.
  • Speak at local events.
  • Have newer hires build portions of your onboarding schedule.
  • Encourage employees to speak at high school and university career days.
  • Create community partnerships to have students come to your workplace.
  • Give them an intern for a few hours a day.

Skill-shifting. I think I made up this word but it works. Our organization is made up entirely of millennials (present company excluded) and when we started growing regularly enough to sense patterns, I...well...I sensed a pattern. After a while in a certain department, people would sort of stop caring. While they were doing their jobs well, they had stalled in learning anything new or interesting. So I moved a new responsibility onto their plate and helped them figure out their new responsibilities, slowly and carefully.

Overall, I manage my millennials the way I would manage any employee I hope will grow and support my organization. At the end of the day, it seems they all just want to have the same lucrative career opportunities as any generation before them. 

*Image from Magic Whistle

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