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Should Your Company Create a Handbook for Managing Millennials?

And other questions you’d rather not ask your own HR

Most of us work more than we live, which is to say we spend considerably more time at the office and with our coworkers than we do with the human beings we actually want in our lives. It also means that the stressors and anxieties of work become a significant part of who we are — and can be a real drag even when we’re not at the office. We here at MEL, however, don’t want all that stress to get to you — or worse, kill you. That’s why we’ve enlisted Terry Petracca, the hippest HR expert we know, to help solve all your work-related woes.

A good friend of mine told me that her Fortune 500 company had a division within its HR department just for millennial relations. Is this just another stodgy response to a generation that everyone obsesses over and doesn’t seem to know how to handle, or is it something that’s always happened with younger generations of workers?
Are millennials different? Yes! But so is every generation. And the distinctions among generations, which are real, result from the environment that shaped them. It turns out that what millennials want from work isn’t radically different from what other generations want—e.g., pay, benefits, job security and advancement. But there’s a perception gap between millennials and managers that’s creating a challenge: Almost 50 percent of managers think that millennials have unrealistic compensation expectations and a poor work ethic and can’t stay focused.

So let’s talk about millennials — those of you between the ages of 21 and 36 — and what makes you unique. Compared to Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, you have higher levels of student loan debt, poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of wealth and personal income at the same stage of their life cycle. You’re also the most educated generational cohort in history.

Since you grew up with the mantra of “I’m the boss of me” and see yourself as skeptical of institutions, you’re not good listeners. You also don’t filter comments to management and each other. So your managers need to capitalize on your strength in innovation and risk-taking. However, they also need to remind you that you don’t necessarily know what’s best (gently at first, dictatorially later); that innovative ideas are great, but you still have to deliver the goods; and that effort isn’t as important as results in competitive and short-cycle businesses.

Will you always be this challenging to manage? Maybe, maybe not. The impermanence of jobs, the rise of the gig economy and the relentlessness of debt are going to shape your mindset and actions for decades. Pundits proclaim that fewer homeowners, marriages and children are in your future as well as more freelancing and less retirement. This will shape your expectations and demands at work. Like Baby Boomers, who entered the workforce during the civil rights movement, women’s liberation and a “Question Authority” mentality, you’ll wind your way through the world of work taking the best of your generation with you. All the while, you’ll most likely hold onto your millennial ideals that make a difference in things like work-life balance and social responsibility and transform some of the things you currently hate like annual pay raises, meetings and performance reviews. And if/when you retire, you’ll probably think that Generation Alpha is so different from you that you’ll need an HR handbook on how to handle them.

In an earlier column, you wrote about how to deal with colleagues you don’t like. But how do you remain productive when you get along really well with all of your coworkers and default to lots of joking, especially on busy/stressful days?
I suspect it might not just be joking around when you’re under pressure that’s the problem. It can be just as time-consuming and distracting to have long discussions about Game of Thrones Season Seven theories as it is to joke.

Everyone you work with understands deadlines; they just have little regard for yours. The easiest comment to make to the team is, “Deadline here! Can you all pleeeease [stretch out the ‘please’ for emphasis] move away for a while until I get my work done?” It’s simple and to the point. Now everyone understands why you’ve been grumpy and to leave you alone.

But if that short and sweet request doesn’t get people to stop and/or move away, you’ve got to take more drastic measures, “ASSHOLES, listen up! My ass is on the line, and I need to concentrate! GO AWAY, or you’ll see my inner Cersei explode.” That’s a twofer: You let them know you’re up on GOT, but you also can’t have an endless debate about it at the moment.

In short, enjoy the fun and camaraderie, but if you have time-sensitive work and people are a distraction, you have to let them know.

Once an office cancer has taken hold, how do you keep them from becoming completely malignant? Or is that impossible unless they leave — either by choice or by being fired?
Office cancers take many different shapes — benign to malignant, to continue with this analogy. Benign workplace cancers, just like their medical counterparts, are superficial. These are the people who publicly say stupid shit (“When’s the baby due?” to someone overweight), act out in stupid ways (rudely leaving meetings before they’re done) and generally haven’t figured out that being a petulant child isn’t appropriate work behavior. Just like dealing with a 6-year-old, you need to continuously call out the bullshit and bad behavior (sometimes publicly, sometimes privately) to stop it. When all else fails, give them a time-out (i.e., don’t invite them to meetings until they can act like a professional/adult).

But when your co-workers are Machiavellian bastards (gender-free language here), they contaminate everyone and everything they touch. That’s the malignancy to which you refer. Subtlety doesn’t work on this group. In many cases, they know how toxic their behavior is, and they revel in its mean-spiritedness because they believe this is how they became successful — think bullies, liars and cheaters. If they’re oblivious to their Breaking Bad modus operandi, you’re dealing with an individual who is completely out of touch, in denial or a sociopath.

Malignant cancers can only be dealt with through intervention. Just like real life, wishing and hoping doesn’t make it go away. Get some brave soul to allege bullying or harassment. Then there’s the opportunity to investigate, assess and take action, including coaching, discipline or termination. Astute managers should also be attuned to changes in team dynamics, people not wanting to work with specific colleagues, whispers or crying. One thing is certain: You need to take action once you’ve been able to confirm the diagnosis. This is one case where having the employee leave is usually better for everyone involved.

Don’t just complain to your coworkers about everyone else you work with — let Terry help. Email her all your office-related anxieties at terry@melindustries.com. Or, if total anonymity isn’t required, leave a question in the comments below.