Millennials at work: How to engage them

Personnel Matters

I was shopping at a major home improvement store a few weeks ago to purchase some lawn care items such as mulch, fertilizer, grass seed, etc. As I checked out with my pull cart, loaded with several bags of products, I asked the cashier where the rolls of plastic were that are usually available for lining the trunk of one’s car to keep it clean. I was told that they were “out” at this exit but that there may be some at the other store exit. One employee, who appeared to be a millennial, reluctantly offered to go check.

In about five minutes he returned and said, “Yes, there are sheets at the other exit.” Somewhat stunned, I said, “Thank you for checking.” What I wanted to say was, “Then why didn’t you rip off a couple of sheets and bring them back with you?” What I’m leading up to with this story is this: “What can we do to get employees, especially millennials, more “engaged” in their work?

A Gallup survey report issued in 2017 suggests that only 33 percent of employees in the United States are engaged at work. For millennials (persons born in the 1980s or 1990s), the percentage is even less—at 29 percent. This statistic is particularly significant because by 2025, millennials are estimated to make up 75 percent of the workforce. It is not the fault of organizations that millennials are the way they are. Parenting approaches, technology and the social environment have all had a role in their development. However, given these developmental precursors, it is obvious that organizations will need to do more to engage millennials at work. While this is no easy task, here are a few suggestions:

Purpose. Above all, millennials seek purpose in their life and work. This is probably the most challenging aspect of engaging millennials—how to bring “purpose” to life at work. In the above story, how do you show millennials that their job is not simply to stock and sell home improvement products? Wouldn’t it be better to help employees see that they could help customers fulfill their dreams for improving their home? That is basically what Disney does with its theme parks, cruises and products. They see their purpose as delivering “experiences” and products that “enrich consumers’ experiences.” This is an approach that many companies could attempt to emulate.

Learning and development. Eighty-seven percent of millennials consider learning and development as one of the most important take-aways from work. Companies need to show they are interested in the future of their employees by investing in training and development. Giving millennials the opportunity to learn new things through rotational assignments or similar experiences is best.

Coaches, not bosses. Millennials see work and life as intertwined. Because of that, they want supervisors to see them both as an employee and a person. This means that supervisors at all levels should display a personal interest in them and help facilitate their work performance and personal growth and development. Millennials don’t want to be told what they have to do; they want supervisors who will show them what to do, how to do it correctly and help them become “great” at their job, whatever it is.

Feedback and recognition. Millennials like to know how they are performing and want recognition for what they have done. For millennials, feedback should be continuing, but informal. It should be given with care and the intent to help that person grow. Recognition should also be ongoing. Catch millennials doing something good or right and praise them immediately for their accomplishment.

Temporary is OK. Millennials are not going to join an organization and stay for 40 years as their grandfathers did. Millennials are impatient; if they feel that they are not developing or advancing fast enough, they will seek new challenges elsewhere. Knowing that, managers should focus on doing what they can to maximize the performance of their millennials while they are with the company. Hire them, instill in them a sense of purpose for their work, train them, help them develop and appreciate them. When millennials decide it’s time to move on, wish them well and let them know the door is open if they want to return.

To cite Bob Dylan’s song from 1964, “The Times, They are a-Changin’.” And, like it or not, we in the business world need to be a-changin’, too.

Dr. W. J. Heisler
About Dr. W. J. Heisler 2 Articles
Dr. W. J. Heisler is professor of human resource management and director of the MSHRM program at Troy University. He operates out of TROY’s site based in Chesapeake, Va. He holds Ph.D. and M.B.A. degrees from Syracuse University and worked for more than 20 years in management and executive positions in human resources at Newport News Shipbuilding. Contact: wheisler@troy.edu.

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