When I speak to groups of managers about working with employees of various age groups, I often start by asking them to share words that describe different generations. Along the top of a whiteboard, I write “Boomers,” “Xers” and “Millennials,” then I write down their suggestions. Under each heading, they offer words that are both positive and negative. The “Millennial” heading, for instance, might include terms like “collaborative,” “tech-savvy,” “spoiled,” and “lazy.”
I then ask the group: Why do we think it’s OK to label people with certain characteristics based on the years in which they were born? What if those headings instead reflected someone’s race, ethnicity, or gender? Would we be as willing to build stereotypes based on those labels? Of course not.
Unfortunately, information from so-called experts is often no better than our own beliefs. For instance, I read one book that says millennials desperately want to grow within a single organization, and another that says turnover is a fact of life with millennials, and they’re going to leave no matter what you do. One study showed that millennials don’t like to meet in person and you have to reach them via social media—but in another study, I read that millennial respondents overwhelmingly said their favorite way to learn about a company was through in-person job fairs.
If you’re an HR executive attempting to create policies and procedures that will resonate with the employees of a particular generational group, you’re playing a guessing game, as these examples show,.
And that guessing game can have serious financial consequences. For instance, you may be spending a lot of time and money trying to design a new benefit policy that includes flexible scheduling for your millennial employees, but what most of them really want is a stronger retirement plan. In many cases, the stereotypes may not match your employees’ preferences. And when you make business decisions based on assumptions, your employees may feel like they’re misunderstood, and they’re unlikely to want to stay at your organization.
Rather than continuing to rely on generational labels, HR leaders need to leave the labels behind and focus on how to motivate individual employees. In my book, Unfairly Labeled: How Your Workplace Can Benefit from Ditching Generational Stereotypes (Wiley, 2016), I recommend some steps that can help:
1. Check your bias. In recent years, most of us have heard quite a bit about what millennials and members of other generations are like in the workplace. And even if much of that information is downright false, it may influence our thinking. First, consider your own bias: Are you influenced by what you’ve read, or are you actually getting to know the individual people in your workplace? While you may know a millennial who perfectly fits the stereotype, that doesn’t mean the person in front of you isn’t also a little bit complex. Maybe your millennial employee fits the “entitlement” stereotype because she expects a raise every year, but then you learn she’s willing to work hard to earn that raise. Or maybe she fits the stereotype of not being family oriented because she’s 25 and single, but 10 years from now she’ll likely be much more family oriented.
2. Think critically about the data. Much of the information that’s published about generational stereotypes comes from unreliable studies. Maybe the research was sponsored by a for-profit organization that’s trying to sell you something, or maybe it used a very small population size. And even if specific statements hold true for the people in the study, that doesn’t mean they apply to your workplace. If 54% percent of 22-year-olds in the Northwest prefer to ride their bikes to work, that doesn’t mean young 30-somethings at your Midwestern suburban office want to ride their bikes, too, even though they’re also millennials. Instead of taking what you read at face value, communicate with your employees by surveying them or conducting focus groups to determine whether they fit the data.
3. Lose the language. Next, stop using generational labels entirely. Don’t say “millennials” or “Gen Xers” or “boomers” to describe your employees or candidates. For instance, although the word “millennial” is harmless on its own, simply meaning people born between 1982 and 2004, it now has baggage associated with it, and many people conflate it with words like “entitled,” “tech-savvy,” and “lazy.”
Instead of using these words, use more meaningful descriptors. For instance, you may need specific programs for “recent college grads” or “working parents,” but no one specific generational group fits those descriptions.
4. Initiate an internal campaign. HR should lead the way in leaving the generational labels behind. We should be having conversations throughout our organizations about how generational labels are really just another way of stereotyping. Encourage managers in all departments to avoid relying on unproven information to make assumptions about generational groups of employees. Instead, help them dig a little deeper to understand the people who work with them and find out what’s important to those individuals. They need to be asking questions, distributing surveys, or conducting focus groups to find out what their employees value and how they can be motivated. Do they want better work-life balance? More retirement benefits? Flexible schedules? The only way to know is to ask them.
5. Get buy-in from the top. While HR may need to initiate the campaign to banish generational stereotypes, you won’t get far without the blessing of top leadership. At Oracle, for instance, CEO Mark Hurd was convinced of the reliability of generational stereotypes until we showed him some specific data from our own organization. We surveyed Oracle employees and found that across generational levels, there were no differences in values, engagement levels, and reasons for staying or leaving. Once Hurd saw the results of his own population, he was convinced we needed to leave generational stereotypes behind.
When employment decisions and benefit policies are based on stereotypes, employees can feel misunderstood and isolated. Successful managers get to know the person in front of them. And when it comes time to make decisions affecting that person, they’re able to say, “I don’t care what the millennial (or Gen Xer or boomer) stereotype is. I know what you’re like because I know you.”
If all 18- to 35-year-olds aren’t lazy or entitled, and don’t prefer to be recruited via Twitter, how should HR leaders recruit and motivate employees and candidates in this age group? For specific steps to better understand younger workers and the best ways to interact and communicate with them, download “Debunking the Myths Surrounding Millennials: A Practical Checklist for Managers.”