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Vol. 42, No. 2

Millennials in the workplace: What they need, and why it matters

by Lowell Brown

Organizations must do more to build a culture of engagement if they want to thrive in a future workforce dominated by Millennials. That was the key message from the “Managing Generational Differences in the Workplace” session at the 2017 NABE Annual Meeting in New York.

Millennials—typically defined as people born between either 1978 or 1982 and 2000—will make up half of the workforce by 2020, as Baby Boomers retire in numbers too great for the smaller Generation X to replenish, said Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president of the Wayland, Mass.-based Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership. To succeed in that environment, bar associations and other organizations should be more intentional about building intergenerational teams and engaging Millennial employees and members, Rikleen said, stressing that “institutional sustainability is at stake.”

Trends, not stereotypes

But before getting too deep into that discussion, Rikleen cautioned the audience about stereotypes. While research is useful for talking about trends and drawing some conclusions about generations as a whole, she said, it should never be used to stereotype individual employees or members.

That said, Millennials tend to share some defining characteristics, such as pragmatism, optimism, and an aversion to autocratic leadership styles, Rikleen noted, citing research. They see a leader as a strategic thinker who inspires others with strong interpersonal skills, vision, passion, and an ability to act decisively. Millennials also crave autonomy on the job and want their bosses to care about their overall well-being and professional growth, not just financial results.

“I think these are really important qualities to be thinking about in our bar association roles,” Rikleen said.

Rikleen is no stranger to this topic, or to the work of bar associations. She is a former law firm partner, a past president of the Boston Bar Association, and an active ABA member. Her books include You Raised Us, Now Work With Us, which focuses on how generations can better understand each other and enhance leadership and talent development in the workplace.

Millennials are a global generation, constantly connected by technology. They are loyal—but to people over organizations, Rikleen said. They will join organizations, but they need a compelling reason to do so because of competing choices and opportunities, she added.

“I have yet to talk to a Millennial who says, ‘I don’t join,’” she said. “But they’ll have very thoughtful discussions about what they’re looking for when they ultimately do join and what they think about retention.”

Nine tips for engaging Millennials

Rikleen offered the following tips for creating a culture of engagement that attracts and retains Millennials:

  1. Rethink training and development with the goal of integrating Millennials into the workplace faster.
  2. View feedback as a retention and talent-development tool for Millennials. “They’re not asking to hear how great they’re doing,” Rikleen explained, contradicting a stereotype. “They’re asking to hear how they’re doing.”
  3. Develop a comprehensive approach to communication challenges that considers preferred styles of communication as well as privacy and confidentiality concerns, since Millennials have lived much of their lives on social media.
  4. Implement work-life integration strategies that give employees more flexibility over when and how they work.
  5. Rethink hierarchy, especially in terms of how long it takes to become a leader in your bar association. “We need to allow people access to meaningful opportunities at a younger age,” Rikleen said, “or you’ll continue to see a diminished number of members.”
  6. Emphasize intergenerational team building to take advantage of senior leaders’ wisdom and younger workers’ fresh perspectives.
  7. Consider organizational strategies to combat unconscious biases.
  8. Be intentional about leadership development.
  9. Increase transparency. Millennials will lead with transparency and want it in their workplaces and organizations, Rikleen said: “They don’t want things to be a mystery.”

Hard work, but critical for survival

In short, Rikleen said, Millennials are looking for professional development, advancement opportunities, strong guidance from mentors, frequent feedback, updated technology, and support for work-life integration. It’s important to train leaders about what motivates different generations while avoiding negative stereotypes, she said.

“Training that recognizes nuance in these issues and promotes ways for people to collaborate and problem solve is critical,” she noted.

The same strategies will help bar associations reach out to Millennials while continuing to serve their existing members, Rikleen believes. “Not an easy task,” she said, “but the only thing you can do to survive.”

(Note: To learn more, please consult the handouts from this program.)

Lowell Brown

Lowell Brown is communications division director at the State Bar of Texas and a member of the National Association of Bar Executives Communications Section Council.