Illustration by Sibel Ergener

There’s No Job Millennials Won’t Leave, but Here’s How to Keep Them a Bit Longer

5 tips from a guy who wrote a book on the subject

Don’t bother getting to know the millennial sitting next to you at work — or, if you’re a millennial, the people sitting around you — because you won’t be working together for long.

Barely half of the millennials surveyed in a recent Gallup poll strongly agreed that they planned to be working at their company one year from now, suggesting that half the millennial workforce doesn’t see a future with their current employer. Not to mention that the average millennial will change jobs four different times by the age of 32. Their most common complaint? “Not emotionally connected to the job.”

There are any number of reasons why it behooves companies to retain their employees: They may leave for a competitor; high turnover rates don’t look good; it’s expensive to replace lost talent; there’s more training and orientation than actual work getting done; and employees who’ve worked together for a considerable amount of time generally create a positive work culture.

In other words: It’s worthwhile to try to mitigate the loss of young blood.

That said, it’s not simple. As we’ve explored previously, millennials are different from older generations in a variety of ways: They don’t handle adversity well; they can be slow to realize effort isn’t as important as results; and there may even need to be whole departments created in order for other generations to better understand how in the hell they’re supposed to work with them. More to the point, baby boomers and Gen-Xers tend to be more compliant, whereas millennials think, I can do better than this. And having grown up clutching smartphones, they’ll prove it by heading to Glassdoor until they find a company that will make them feel valued (with or without a participation trophy).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EBNPyQFBneE

HR consultant Rex Conner knows millennials. A boomer himself, Conner has worked with Gen-Xers and millennials inside more than 50 companies over the last two decades — Nissan, Honda and Southwest Airlines among them. Most recently, his work has focused on the exact topic at hand: How to hold on to the job-hopping generation. It’s a central focus in both his corporate training consulting company, Mager Consortium, and his book, What If Common Sense Was Common Practice in Business?

Conner recently shared some of his ideas on millennial retention with me. Here are five of them:

1) Observable performance measures are key. What sets millennials apart from boomers and Gen-Xers, Conner says, is that they’re very practical and results-oriented. They don’t want any subjectivity at work: They want to be told clearly what’s expected of them and the best way to do their job. They also want to know that they’ll be evaluated fairly, which means losing what he calls “fuzzy language” — e.g., things like, “You need to be a better communicator.” Instead, Conner recommends observable performance measures: “You’re using grammar and punctuation in emails as you do in a text. We need standard syntax: Complete sentences, capital letters and don’t abbreviate words.”

2) Set clear performance benchmarks. “People join companies, they leave their bosses,” explains Conner, who believes most negative workplace energy comes when employees disagree with their boss on how something should be done. He suggests formalizing the work process and setting clear benchmarks on how people are going to be evaluated so there are no surprises. “For example, when my company holds a workshop we need at least five people to attend. I said to one of my millennial employees, ‘You probably need to call 50 people to get five people to this workshop.’ When I checked back with him and asked if we had five people for the workshop, he said, ‘No, but I called 50 people.’ He thought the job was done because I wasn’t specific enough. In my mind, I was saying, ‘Get five people to the workshop.’ In his mind I was saying, ‘Call 50 people.’ I didn’t make clear the standard by which he would be judged. I was using fuzzy language, which millennials struggle with more than previous generations.”

3) Millennials aren’t lazy—they just have zero tolerance for bullshit. Conner says relevance is paramount for young people and they demand to be treated fairly. “They’ll think, Why are we doing that?! Demonstrate to me how my dress reflects how I work. I dress casually and do just as good work. Why do I have to dress more formally? They want their opinion to be valued and to have things be relevant to them. More than anything, though, they don’t want things to violate common sense.”

4) They need to feel like they’re making a contribution and their work is having an effect in the organization. Millennials are coming to grips with the fact that traditional retirement after working for one company their entire adult life is unlikely. Consequently they’ve prioritized meaningful work above all — which means making a tangible contribution in the workplace. “In my generation if someone said, ‘I’ve been here two years and feel like I’m not contributing,’ we’d laugh and say, ‘You gotta be there five or 10 years before you’re contributing.’ Millennials won’t tolerate that. They want to to know now that they’re contributing from Day One,” Conner says. Which is why his workshops teach performance-based training so employees see what they’re contributing and how it fits the overall mission. “They think Great, I’m going to use this right away and be able to contribute on Day One. That’s exciting for anyone, but it’s singing the millennial’s song: Relevance, contribution, production.”

5) Accept that people move jobs every two years now. It’s the new normal. Get used to it, Conner says. “Whether they’re a millennial or not, I tell people when they join our team, ‘Use this company as it suits you and make us prove we value you and that it’s a place you want to be. And it may not be — that’s just a reality.’ I don’t subscribe to the notion that you need to be loyal because we’re paying you. No, you’re paying me because I’ve done work for you for the last two weeks. So let me, the boss, prove to you that you’re valued. If I want to retain you, I’m going to do whatever I can to prove that. I think we should accept the new normal and demonstrate we want to retain people by making it worth their while.”