A Millennial Dilemma

Apr 22, 2008

Millennials are entering the workforce as quickly as boomers are retiring, and they’ve brought with them a set of ideals and skills that differ greatly from those of previous generations. Needless to say, they’re really shaking things up.

This generation, which most experts define as those born in the 1980s and 1990s, has grown up immersed in a technological world where their friends, families, and almost any piece of information are a click away. They are unabashedly self-confident; they believe they deserve respect; and they value work/life balance even more than financial rewards.

As workers, Millennials are more likely than their predecessors to push for flexible work schedules, extra benefits, and frequent promotions, and they’re far less likely to accept the concept of “paying your dues.” At the end of the day, they’re also less loyal to their employers; if Millennials don’t get what they want, they’re not about to stick around and wait patiently.

Millennials present a new dilemma for employers who want to attract and retain good people but don’t want to compromise established company standards.

Companies that do opt to accommodate the “sense of entitlement” that is so common with Millennials may be putting themselves on a slippery slope that can lead to decreased productivity, lower profits, and resentment among staff who worked hard to earn the right to such benefits. On the flip side, those companies that stubbornly stick to tradition run the risk of repelling a generation of uniquely talented workers, many of whom aren’t prepared to settle for a job that’s less than perfect.

If you’re like most of the HR professionals being confronted with this dilemma, your gut reaction is probably to scoff at this generation’s audacity. But the reality is, we can’t do without this workforce, nor would we want to.

The largest generation outside of baby boomers, there are approximately 75 million Millennials in the U.S. alone. Not only are they poised to take on the positions being vacated by retiring boomers, but they possess crucial technological skills and ideas that will drive businesses forward in the 21st century.

In addition, Millennials are known for their exceptional multitasking and team-building abilities, a direct result of the high-tech, interactive manner in which they’ve communicated nearly all their lives.

Finding a Middle Ground

To form successful and productive working relationships, employers and workers should meet on common ground where they understand and appreciate each other’s approach to work. It sounds pretty straightforward, but recruiters and employers can’t exactly enforce behavioral change in a generation that has been largely brought up believing the perfect job awaits them, and if this one doesn’t fulfill there are plenty out there that will.

What HR professionals can do is make an effort to understand where this generation is coming from, and keep an open mind regarding future organizational policies, work/life balance, and benefits packages. They can even confront change head-on and make deliberate decisions that affect and benefit the entire company. More immediately though, companies can avoid the slippery slope altogether by simply hiring the right people.

By taking a more direct approach throughout the interview process, where the interviewer clearly communicates the company’s culture and expectations, and asks questions designed to screen the Millennial candidate’s work ethic and values, both parties will have the opportunity to gauge whether the fit is a good one.

A New Generation of Interview Questions

In service of this more direct interview approach, it’s time rethink the tired old list of interview questions. By modifying traditional questions and incorporating new ones that speak directly to Millennials’ strengths and weaknesses, recruiters and HR professionals will accomplish two things. They’ll be more successful at weeding out applicants whose demands and expectations may not mesh with a company’s culture, and they’ll gain insight into the unique and valuable qualities Millennials can contribute to a company.

Rework traditional questions in a way that elicits honest and enlightening responses. Millennials aren’t as likely as their elder colleagues to have a clear vision of their professional selves in five or 10 years, but that doesn’t mean they won’t have an answer. Rather than asking them what job title they want to have in the future, it might be more telling to determine a candidate’s perceptions of how one gets ahead in your industry, and how quickly.

Try delving deeper:

  • After you’re hired, how will you advance from this position to the one just above it? More specifically, what qualities and actions do you believe are necessary to continue moving up in this organization?
  • Where do you see yourself in two/five/10 years? Explain how you’ll get there.
  • What do you expect to get out of this job?

Incorporate more personal questions that expose a candidate’s personality, work ethic, and personal motivations. How a person approaches life is often indicative of how they’d approach work.

Rephrase typical interview questions to apply to the candidate’s personal life:

  • How do you primarily communicate with friends? How often?
  • When you have a dilemma to solve, how do you approach it?
  • How do you spend your free time? (Do you prefer doing activities solo, with friends, or in groups?)

Ask questions that speak directly to Millennials’ strengths and weaknesses. This generation is used to giving and receiving feedback on everything from online purchases, to blog and message board posts, to quick exchanges via IM and text messaging. Constant interaction is their way of life, and they’ll probably expect it to be their way of work.

Ask straightforward questions that could predict a candidate’s work style:

  • When you do an outstanding job, how do you want to be rewarded?
  • Describe your ideal feedback scenario (i.e., What format? How often do you want to receive it? Who should provide it?)
  • Describe the ideal work/life balance.
  • Is the concept of “paying your dues” outdated?

Make a Millennial Match That Works for You

You’ve probably already hired Millennials. Over the next few years, you may even find that they make up most of your and your clients’ staffs. While it’s tempting to dismiss this generation’s unconventional approach to work as an unfortunate side effect of technology or parental coddling, it’s counterproductive. Sure, they’re shaking things up a bit, but who says it can’t be a good thing?

No one can deny the benefit of fresh ideas from a fresh perspective. It’s just important to know that the success of those ideas depends first and foremost on making an employee/company match that makes sense.

When all is said and done, each side still must be open to a working relationship that may not exactly fit past experiences or future expectations, but that can be enjoyable and profitable nonetheless.

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