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Management tips and labor market insights to help you run your business

Managing Millennials: 3 Solutions to Your Biggest Complaints

By Josh Burnett on November 1, 2018

Everyone has heard the stereotypes about millennials. They’re lazy, entitled, addicted to their phones -- the list goes on and on. But as a business owner or manager, the first thing you need to understand about millennials is that they’re here to stay. They became a majority of the workforce in 2015, and more are joining every year. Chances are that millennials already make up a significant portion of your staff.

So, whether you like it or not, you’re going to have to learn how to work with them. But don’t worry, we’re here to help. In this post, we’re going to offer some solutions to some of the common issues employers have when it comes to managing millennials. And who knows? We may even find a few silver linings to some of their supposedly negatively traits.

Problem 1: They expect praise right away

One complaint you’ve probably heard (or maybe even made yourself) is that millennials expect praise without having earned it. This is the “participation trophy generation," right? They think they deserve the benefits of success without any of the work.

That’s one way to look at it. But consider this: Even if they don’t understand what it takes to earn praise, the fact that a millennial employee wants it suggests they care about how they perform. And if praise is how they’re measuring performance, that suggests that your feedback is a potent tool for motivation. You just need to figure out how to wield it effectively.

Obviously, it’s unproductive to pat employees on the back if they haven’t done a good job. But research shows that employees thrive when positive feedback outweighs negative -- and the margin might be bigger than you think. An industrial psychology study covered in Harvard Business Review found that a 5:1 positive to negative feedback ratio led to optimal performance. Researchers found that while a well-placed criticism can jolt employees out of complacency, they need a steady stream of encouragement to maintain high effort and stay motivated to improve.

You can apply these lessons to get the most out of your feedback-conscious millennial employees. Let them know when they aren’t meeting your business’ standards, and tell them how to improve. But when they’re performing well -- even if it’s at the level you’d expect them to be at, and not necessarily above and beyond -- don’t take it for granted. Let them know when they’re doing something right, so that they’ll know which good behaviors to hold on to and feel motivated to keep getting better.

Problem 2: They question their managers

There’s one question lots of managers say they hate hearing from their younger staff: “Why?” As in, “Why do we keep these utensils over here?” or “Why do we clean our equipment in this order?”

Some managers take "Why?" as a challenge to their authority. They don’t see how else a new, less experienced employee could think it makes sense to question the business' modus operandi. Others would simply rather focus on getting through the shift and knocking out what needs to get done, without stopping to explain the thinking behind every decision. To them, the question of "Why?" is a nuisance that hurts productivity.

But while it’s true that employees sometimes question managers in a disrespectful way or at an inopportune time, they often have good reasons to ask, “Why?” Think about why you as a manager may ask that same question of your employees. Asking “Why?” is the only way to improve your strategy, as it reveals the connection between the actions you take and the goals your team needs to achieve.

So, while they don’t have the authority to demand you tell them "why" whenever they want, the fact that your millennial employees want to know indicates a desire to help the business succeed. You need to find a way to harness that desire at the appropriate times. Consider setting up a specific time when employees can ask managers anything they want about the business -- it could be during your team meetings or one-on-ones. This sets clear expectations about when it is and isn’t okay to question managers. You'll know that employees who follow protocol and make the effort to ask good questions at the designated time are doing so with the intention of helping the business. 

Problem 3: They want to work on their own schedule

A recent survey by researchers at Bentley University found that 77% percent of millennials believe a flexible work schedule would make them more efficient. That shouldn't be surprising. After all, who wouldn't want the ability to control their own schedule? But to millennials, it's less of a pipe dream -- and maybe even an expected perk -- given the rise of flexible work both in white collar offices and in new gig economy jobs.

But while a fully customizable schedule sounds great, it isn’t realistic for many hourly employees -- especially those who work enough shifts to be considered full-time. Hourly work is based on a defined schedule that managers build with the business’ best interests in mind. Every shift needs to be filled somehow, so to a certain extent, staff need to adapt to the company’s schedule -- not the other way around.

At the same time though, you can’t run your business like a dictator. Employees often have legitimate reasons to miss work. They just need to let their boss know and make arrangements for someone else to fill in (obviously, this wouldn't apply if there's a genuine, last minute emergency).

The solution? A simple, well-defined shift swap policy. You can give employees flexibility to adjust their schedules as needed without creating extra work for yourself by letting them trade shifts with each other -- but only within reason. You need to make sure that each day’s schedule is public for all to see and that employees know which of their co-workers are qualified for which positions, and therefore who they can swap with for a given shift. You may also want to implement a deadline for shift swaps -- say, 12 hours before the shift begins -- so that employees aren’t inconveniencing each other or causing uncertainty as their shift approaches.

There may be other wrinkles to account for depending on the nature of your business. In fact, some businesses may simply be unable to accommodate a shift swap policy. But if you can manage to implement one, a shift swap policy is a great way to give employees control over their schedules while also ensuring the business’ staffing needs are always taken care of.  

The Same Differences

Since practically the dawn of time, older generations have seen their younger counterparts as immature, inexperienced, and disrespectful. Hell, even Socrates complained that the youths of ancient Greece had "bad manners and contempt for authority." Millennials are simply next in line to hear these stereotypes and one day, they'll probably be saying the same things about the generations below them. But wise managers see generational traits for what they are -- largely unavoidable and often just symptoms of youth -- and find ways to turn them into positives. 

Josh Burnett

About

Josh Burnett

Josh is a freelance writer based out of Corvallis, Oregon. If he isn't writing his own words, he's reading someone else's, spending time outdoors, or playing with his kids.

Helping you become a better manager.