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December 10, 2018 Focus: HR & Recruitment

What do millennials want? How a younger generation is influencing the workplace

Photo / Tim Greenway At WEX Inc., from left, Patricia Hasson, an inside sales representative; Rebecca Mills, manager of partner operations and indirect tax teams; and Gimbala Sankare, global early career pipeline manager. They are part of PROPEL, a professional development organization for young professionals.

When Patricia Hasson was a University of Maine senior researching job opportunities, criteria included firms offering flexible scheduling and workplace options, a focus on work-life balance, plus interesting challenges, career advancement opportunities and community engagement.

She found what she was looking for at South Portland payment solutions firm WEX Inc., which she joined in 2017 and where she's now an inside sales representative.

Hasson — part of the millennial generation, born in 1994 — views WEX as part of a work culture that was already shifting in response to the needs of workers of all ages, as family dynamics changed and work-from-home opportunities improved.

But whereas older generations didn't take those changes for granted, millennials today, Hasson says, are more likely to see such shifts as only the starting point. Now, they're eager to continue pushing the boundaries.

“When I was in school, they brought up all these ideals that you could have in a job,” Hasson says. “A lot of startup companies were gearing their work culture to the millennial generation. So when we see that, we say, 'OK, that company can change. These other companies can change as well.' I think the millennial generation is very fast-forward in general. I think we're always pushing the brink of the next best thing.”

A generation with a reputation

There's a fair amount of snark about the millennial generation. Take a recent New York Times article, whose subhead was, “We like you. You're wonderful. Just please stop calling your parents every day. They already wrote your college essay! They can't help you now!”

Hasson, for one, isn't happy about the characterization.

“I'm proud to be a millennial, but I'm not happy there's this stigma, because we have a lot of good things to offer the world,” Hasson says. “To combat that, you just have to be the best person you can be.”

Other business leaders agree the sarcasm is unwarranted.

“Millennials want the same respect and benefits that any other generation wants,” says WEX's global early career pipeline manager, Gimbala Sankare.

“There are folks who think millennials don't want to work hard, or they're entitled,” says Ed McKersie, founder and president of Portland-based Pro Search Inc., a recruiting firm. “I don't find that to be true at all. What I do find to be true is that they want to know how what they're doing fits into the organization.”

That's different from the outlook of older generations, he says: “When I was starting in my career, far fewer employers saw the value of communicating with all levels of employees about overall company performance. So, many hiring managers of my generation might be taken aback by this generation's desire to understand how they fit in.”

Jarring questions

Some misinterpret that questioning as impatience about advancing their careers. “They know they need to pay their dues,” McKersie says. “But they're asking questions that might be a little jarring to hiring managers sometimes — 'So, tell me more about the industry and about your community engagement.' It's insightful. But at the outset of their career, it can be interpreted as impatience.”

Hasson's interests pretty much exemplify what millennials seek in the workplace, say business leaders.

“Money isn't a motivator,” says a WEX manager, Rebecca Mills, who is Hasson's mentor. “Instead, they'll ask, 'How can I contribute to the overall goal at WEX?' I also think they are very aware of what they like and don't like. They are less inclined to go along with something because they need the job, which I admire.”

At Dead River Co., Tracy Thibodeaux, the HR director, says millennials are unlikely to feel limited by their roles in the company.

“They're going to give you their ideas or thoughts,” she says. “They're more interested in fast-track career-pathing, volunteerism, seeking out projects that might not be their particular role – 'Hey, can I run that? Can I start up that group?' It's refreshing.”

What informs this outlook?

“We've created a trajectory in our minds of where we want to be, and we want an organization that fosters that,” says Amelia Burnes, a millennial who is a business analyst in Dead River's information technology division. “It's as much a learning experience as it is a job.”

Other generations might see millennials as being unmotivated or lacking career drive, says Burnes.

“But I think millennials are trying to be creative and innovative in the way we work,” she says. “We're prioritizing outside interests as much as work interest. There needs to be a balance and an understanding that times have changed.

Still, the fresh approach can cause problems for employers, says Kimberly Jones, a University of Maine Presque Isle faculty member and director of Employer U, the professional development division. She regularly asks millennial students and area employers what they want from each other. Millennials want career progression, empowerment and to be accepted for who they are.

“They say, 'It doesn't matter if we have purple hair or a nose ring: Just value our skills and our knowledge,'” Jones says, adding that millennials tend to be more “fluid” about class assignments and deadlines compared with older students.

In turn, she says, employers say they have problems finding employees with basic professionalism skills, like showing up on time, dressing appropriately and communicating effectively. In response, she says, Employer U is developing workshops and classes focused on skills like time management and communication and professional demeanor; and employers are offering mentorships.

New manager strategies

Employers are responding to the changing workplace in other ways.

At Dead River, help wanted postings are more likely to be on social media.

“You have to meet millennials where they are,” says Thibodeaux. In interviews, the home-heating oil provider also communicates benefits and what's expected. “We've done a lot of work on our employment brand so they understand who we are in total, so it's not just a job or a wage.”

“We've changed how we promote ourselves,” says Tyler Technologies HR Director Liz Rensenbrink. “We're more likely to talk about things we do with the community to make ourselves an interesting place to work.”

At WEX, Mills says the millennial tendency to ask questions demands new managerial strategies.

“With older groups, if I ask Co-Worker A, 'Would you do this without thought?' the answer is usually, 'Yes,'” Mills says. “The millennial will ask, 'Why?' If the middle managers aren't prepared for that, there's a tendency to say, 'You don't need to know why. Just get the task done.' I welcome [the question], but I can see where it's important to manage that, to say, 'Sometimes it's OK to ask why and other times you have to know when to do something and trust the company or the leadership.'”

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