UNC Kenan-Flagler Insights

Maximizing Millennials in the Workplace

May 10, 2012 By Heather Harreld

Editor’s note. This is an executive summary from the Maximizing Millenials in the Workplace white paper from UNC  Executive Development.

They are known as Millennials, Gen Y, Gen Next, Echo Boomers, the Baby-on-Board Generation, Screenagers, Facebookers and the MySpace Generation, to name just a few.

They are the nearly 80 million young adults born between 1976 and 2001 who have already joined or are preparing to join the workforce.

By 2014, 36 percent of the U.S. workforce will be comprised of this generation and by 2020, nearly half (46 percent) of all U.S. workers will be Millennials. The sheer number of Millennials combined with the increasing retirement of Baby Boomers means that employers will be facing leadership gaps and they will be looking to Millennials to fill those gaps.

By all accounts, Millennials are unlike preceding generations. They are tech-savvy continuous learners, team players, collaborators, diverse, optimistic, achievement-oriented, socially conscious and highly educated. Employers wanting to groom this group to be their organization’s next generation of top-level leaders must keep these attributes in mind when designing leadership development programs.

What Millennials Want from Their Employers

Diane Spiegal, CEO of The End Result, a corporate training and leadership development company, notes that Millennials want the following from their employers:

  1. Coaching. Millennials have been coached since their first T-ball game and expect it to continue in the workplace. Coaching does not need to be time consuming or overly formal—it can be as simple as a two-minute conversation in the hallway or a quick response to an e-mail or text.
  2. Collaboration. Millennials are natural collaborators, particularly when the group’s purpose and goals are understood. Employers should keep this in mind when developing project plans.
  3. Measures. Millennials were raised with structure and measuring systems, and are accustomed to understanding how they will be judged and assessed. Employers should define clear and consistent job assessment criteria.
  4. Motivation. Millennials want a work environment that is comfortable and which inspires them to contribute without fear of being criticized.

Millennials also want to follow leaders who are honest, have integrity and who treat them with respect. Leaders should let Millennials know the big picture so they understand their roles. In addition, Millennials want job flexibility and opportunities to learn and meaningfully contribute.

The Employer’s Role in Retaining and Developing Millennials

With this understanding of what Millennials are looking for from their employers in mind, here are a few important steps employers should consider taking to attract, develop and retain this generation:

  • Step 1: Attract them.  Always employ open, honest communication. Let them know about the organization’s culture, flexible work schedules, training-and-development opportunities, etc.  Employers should also consider Millennials’ compensation needs, particularly in light of the average $20,000 debt Millennials have in student loans after graduating from college. Compensation packages slightly above industry or regional averages can provide organizations a recruitment edge in attracting the best and brightest of this generation.
  • Step 2: Develop them. Design programs that foster mutual support and understanding among the generations. Offer soft-skills training like how to assimilate into a new workplace culture, how to work with team members assertively and diplomatically, how to process feedback, how to approach a supervisor for coaching and mentoring, and how to set long-term career goals. Offer collaborative discussions like roundtables that encourage innovative thinking across generations. And finally, foster an appreciation of the diversity within the organization. These leadership development opportunities will help prepare Millennials to assume leadership roles when Baby Boomers begin leaving the workplace.
  • Step 3: Retain them. Create an organizational culture that is open, fun, relaxed, encourages sharing and innovation, and offers flexibility. Millennials want fun and a less formal work atmosphere may appeal to them. Millennials want to have training-and-development opportunities available to them through their employers. These opportunities can include on-the-job training, coaching and mentoring. Some organizations have taken coaching and mentoring a step further by instituting reverse mentoring programs, which allow Millennials to share their technological knowledge to other generations in the workplace.  It is also important to keep the doors open for Millennials who leave the organization. Many organizations have developed virtual alumni networks that keep former employees up-to-date on what is happening in the organization. These networks can also be used to post job announcements specifically tailored to alumni who may be ready to return.


The nearly 80 million Millennials who are about to enter or who are already in the workforce will fundamentally change how business is conducted in the future. Management practices designed to attract, develop and retain this vast cohort must change to reflect this generation’s work—and life—expectations.