The Hidden Gift Your Gen Y Employees Are Offering You

Yesterday, I read one of those “10 Tips for…” type of articles on how to manage the Millennial or Gen Y employee. They included recommendations such as:

  • Provide leadership and guidance.
  • Listen to the Millennial employee.
  • Provide challenge and change.
  • Provide structure (i.e. clear expectations, goals, assessment of progress, etc).

One of the website’s readers posted a point-by-point criticism of the article, concluding with: “The advice given is good for employees of all ages. Contending that it is uniquely applicable to a new generation is nonsense.”

While I agree with the rather prickly poster’s perspective that the author’s advice applies to all employees, I do think he missed the nuances the author was trying to convey.

More specifically, practices that are helpful for workers of any generation are even more critical with Gen Y employees because of the cultural milieu this generation grew up in: extremely involved parents, the self-esteem movement, unrelenting emphasis on fame and making your mark on the world, etc.

So for instance, while providing leadership and guidance is just good management practice, regardless of the direct report’s age, it takes on greater significance with the Millennial employee. Given that Millennials have been described as the most coached and micro-managed generation (think “helicopter parents”), they, on average, want more attention and interest from their manager than would the “typical” Gen X employee.

Thus, simply writing off recommended practices for bringing out the best in Millennials as no different than with other generations, ignores the deal-breaker importance of these practices if you want to attract, retain, and engage the Millennial generation.

The Source of “The Gift” Gen Y Employees Are Handing You

So, when you look at what the research on what the Millennial generation wants in a work experience along with their unique attitude towards work, it’s hard to escape this conclusion:

“Gen Y employees want what everyone else wants in a work experience. However, if they don’t get it, they are far more willing to speak up … or leave.”

While obviously not everyone in a generational cohort thinks or acts the same way, on average, Gen Y employees are known for being much more comfortable challenging authority and speaking their minds. Gen Y employees are also well known for not sticking around if they’re not happy.

While many managers and HR professionals tear their hair out over these tendencies, they miss out on the priceless information their Millennial employees are giving them because of these proclivities.

Gen Y Employees: Your “Canary in the Coal Mine”

Your Gen Y employees are the Canary in the Coal Mine in terms of your managerial practices and the work experience you deliver.

A quick synopsis of the term in case you’re not familiar with it: Long ago, before sophisticated technology, coal miners would bring a canary down into the mine shaft as their early warning sign that CO2 levels were getting dangerously high. If the canary keeled over, it was a good time to head to the surface. Because canaries are more sensitive to CO2 levels than humans, they showed the effects before the men did. Thus, the canary’s increased sensitivity saved lives.

Your Gen Y employees are your Canary in the Coal Mine for those things that lead all employees to become disengaged. Things like:

  • An impersonal boss who only sees you as a tool to achieve his/her goals, and shows no interest in your well-being or professional development.
  • Outdated, nonsensical policies that make it hard to do your work.
  • Lack of respect for your right to have a life outside of work.
  • Being kept out of the loop, so you always feel like you’re laboring in the dark.
  • A boss who only gives negative feedback — never praise or appreciation.
  • No clarity around how your work matters and contributes to the big picture.
  • Few opportunities to make a difference; to do something that truly matters outside of your routine tasks.

“I Quit … But I’ll Still Come to Work”

While all employees want these things, many of those from older generations tolerate them, rather than complain or leave. Instead, they will join the ranks of what the Gallup Organization calls ROAD Warriors — Retired on Active Duty. These employees who no longer care comprise 55% of the workforce, according to Gallup’s research. These are the people who say:

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“I’m so mad, I am no longer going to work here … I’m not going to leave though … I’m just not going to work.”

The fact that 55% of employees in the average organization are just going through the motions is only half the problem. The other half is that because they don’t speak up or leave, their employer doesn’t realize “CO2 levels are rising.”

Thus, it’s easy for employers to go along blithely unaware of the huge price they are paying for ineffective management practices and organizational policies. Because these employees are not as vocal or willing to leave as Gen Y employees, it’s easy to think that:

  • New employees don’t notice or don’t care about the sloppy, boring-as-watching-paint-dry orientation program and indifferent welcome they received.
  • Conducting an employee survey and never reporting the results didn’t have an effect on morale and trust.
  • When managers speak disrespectfully to their direct reports, it’s quickly forgotten by those employees, and leaves no emotional wake.
  • Not asking employees for input over changes that directly affect their jobs is just something they need to get over.

Without Feedback, It’s Easy to Think Things Are Fine When They’re Not

Without dramatic feedback — either an “in-your-face” confrontation or high turnover — it’s easy for employers to lose millions of dollars a year in lost productivity and lost customers due to disengaged customers and never even realize it’s happening.

But with Gen Y employees, there’s no mystery. They’re more than happy to let you know what you’re doing wrong. And that’s the hidden gift of this generation:

You don’t have to wonder about whether you are doing the things that prevent you from attracting, retaining, and engaging talent. You don’t have to worry about laboring under the illusion that all is well when it’s not.

Your Gen Y Employees Will Tell You … Or Leave

So no matter how cheeky they might seem in their delivery, or how annoying you find their lack of loyalty, they are giving you valuable information. It’s sort of like being told you have bad breath. It’s not pleasant news, but it’s better than not knowing.

So What to Do?

  1. Help your less vocal employees speak up. Banish the “suck it up” message that pollutes many organizational cultures. This is not a call to Whiners, but a request for frank, adult-to-adult conversation about what you do as an employer that makes people want to stay and do their best, and what makes people polish up their resume. If you doubt the importance of making it safe for people to speak up, read my article “The Movie Scene Every Manager Should Watch … But Might Be Afraid To …
  2. Thank employees for speaking up. Do this both when it happens and later in a public forum. Share examples in your team- and organization-wide meetings of how employee feedback is being used to make your organization a better place to work. This both communicates that management values employee input and it also energizes people, because they hear proof that they can make a difference, they do matter.
  3. Don’t devolve into an arrogant “It’s an employer’s market they’re lucky to have a job” mentality. While you may have the upper hand in terms of people being security-conscious right now, remember the ROAD Warrior phenomenon. Even if people don’t leave, poor management and organizational practices significantly reduce the performance of those who stay. In this economy — or any economy for that matter — can you afford 10, 20, or 30% less productivity than your workforce is capable of?
  4. Help your managers help you. Since an employee’s supervisor plays the most significant role in that employee’s performance and level of engagement, according to Gallup’s research as well as other studies, make sure your managers know how to do the things that lead to maximum performance and engagement. Make sure they also have the skills to engage employees in “crucial conversations” and foster honest, open dialogue.
  5. Involve your employees in making improvements. Doing this helps you in three ways. First, it taps into the human need to matter, to make a difference. Believing that your input matters and that you can make a difference are huge drivers of employee engagement. Second, involving employees in making improvements fosters an adult/adult relationship with management, rather than a “kids-complain-to-mom-and-dad” dynamic created when employees are encouraged to speak up about what’s bothering them, and management’s job is to come up with solutions. Third, engaging employees in finding solutions is a powerful antidote to the feeling of helplessness and lack of control many people feel during these difficult times. Solving problems and generating creative solutions triggers the biochemistry and emotions of confidence and success, which puts employees in a more productive frame of mind to face the big challenges ahead.

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," as well over 60 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at, or follow him on Twitter at


16 Comments on “The Hidden Gift Your Gen Y Employees Are Offering You

  1. YES, YES YES! Well said Mr. Lee. As I am researching & preparing to create & indoctrinate a college recruiting program with my employer, I’ve read many articles regarding the Millennial generation which seemed to focus on the fact they are more or less clueless brats who want it all. It’s no different than the news and politics where each side can present the facts how they want it to be seen. YOU have taken the high road and can obviously see the positive unlike the majority.

    This article also excites me as my next endeavor is to introduce and roll out an EMPLOYEE ADVOCACY program. This is the type of ammunition I need. Thank you and God bless the Millennials and their need and drive for attention, speaking their mind and demanding more out of life! If we could indoctrinate this type of thinking into the general public, maybe we could wipe out all this BS in Washington and get something done for once!

    A fan,

    Michael Wiley

  2. I read this article and it has stayed with me much of the morning. It is my opinion that it is inaccurate because it is based on a assumption that there actually is a Gen Y or Mellinials with a shared “cultural milieu.”. There is also an error in the article suggesting Gen Y and Mellinials are interchangable terms describing the same thing; they are not. These are terms invented by ad agencies as a marketing gimmick to sell products. Gen Y and Mellinial’s only real collective quality is based on a calendar. Most of David’s assumptions about their behavior has little to do with their “cultural milieu” but with the fact that they are young and idealistic; as we all were. They haven’t yet had the crap kicked out of them in the work place. They haven’t yet learned the value of modifying or manipulating their behavior.

    From an HR or management perspective, no matter what decade, young people require a different approach and a different type of understanding. I think what the young employee (of any generation) brings to the work place is a fresh perspective. Their edges haven’t been rounded off by organizations who benefit from conformity. That’s were you can learn something.

    Scott Reid

  3. Great article. Agree completely that what Gen Y’s tend to want is what all employees should want, but these are not “stick it out” type folks. In years past, they’d just leave. In this economy, they may stay, but check out anyway. Good changes driven by Gen Y requests/demands can be great for the business overall. Nicely put!

  4. I’m going to pose a question that will likely draw some impassioned responses. My hope is that thought, reason and logic ride aling with the passions.

    Here goes: Is there too much emphasis on catering to the wants of the newest (and largest by the way) wave of people entering the workforce and thus a loss of focus on the needs of the business?

  5. Hi Todd,

    Fair questions (see, no passion :-))

    If a company just “gives Gen Y whatever they want to keep them happy” then they’re making a big mistake. Changes that companies carefully decide to implement must first be smart business decisions within the culture and succesful company model, and next also be good for other generations in their workforce. As Mr. Lee explains so nicely and I completely agree, much (not all, but much) of what is important to Gen Y in a job/career is also important to others – and has always been important to others. But most of us didn’t “insist” as Gen Y’s do. We were raised differently.

    For example, flex time is very important and appealing to most of the workforce (even though it can truly make for a more complex management challenge.) Companies who implement flex time thoughtfully and effectively, will likely find their Gen Y’s happier and more engaged. They will also find other generations happier and more engaged. I’d venture to guess that they’ll probably find their staff working longer and smarter as well.

    So that change which caters to Gen Y’s can be good for business and not just bitter medicine. Those are the Gen Y driven changes that businesses should focus on.

  6. I was watching a program on television discussing this generation as the most narcistic generation who do not believe in paying their dues……but yes want fame and fortune…using questionable actions….NUDITY…and not real accomplishments.

    It can be said that in every generation good things and bad things can be said. And yes there are those individuals in this generation do not believe in greed but on relationships rather than career building….but there are those who frankly do not believe in working and collaborating other people and focusing on themselves……(This generation is the me generation that has spent it time in front of Computers)

    This self centred attitude will cause problems and cause conflicts ….cooperation, friendship and empathy are desired goals in every society….We are catering too much to this group and creating conflicts with other groups without taking into account the needs of other generation.

    Certainly companies are aware that other generations are not pulling their weight…..but these companies are not firing these people for fear of reprisal…then is easier to take advantage of younger employees due to shorter tenure…..making false promises…etc……I certainly dont believe anyone should put up with corporate nonsense…I encourage all employees to speak up…including those with no children….who are being taken advantage of……fairness for all is the key…not special treatment for one group..INCOMPLETE ARTICLE

  7. First, there are definitely differences between the generations. People who grew up during the 60’s act much differently than the young professionals who are just entering the workforce today.

    Second, I think it is very dangerous to say that Millennials are just demanding changes such as flextime because they were raised to speak up or it appeals to them. Instead we must realize that Millennials are asking for these changes because the old system of management and business has failed. Rigid, hierarchical corporations have increasingly become more irrelevant in a fast paced, innovation heavy, global environment.

    I believe Millennials understand that the work day no longer exists in the box of 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, and as a result are asking for changes like flextime to help both their own and their company’s productivity. Corporations unfortunately been (in general) resistant to the communication mediums, management structures, and lifestyle approaches that many Gen Ys support. One only needs to look at the Post Office stopping mail on Saturdays shows to see how communicating by letter is dying and the old system is being replaced by a new, more networked, instant one.

    I have to agree almost entirely with Mr. Lee’s post. Millennials do offer honest feedback, and provide a willing group to test new changes for the overall organization. There is an incredible movement beginning among progressive companies who are starting to adopt new management structures. One such program is a Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) championed by Best Buy. The system they have created allows workers to set their own schedules, makes meetings optional, and evaluates employees only on their results and not time spent in the office. The results have been staggering, and Best Buy has expanded the program outside of its corporate headquarters to even their hourly workers. They saved over $3 Million in and increased productivity among ROWE teams by 41%.

    Finally, multiple surveys show that American workers are only productive 33% of the time. This lack of engagement costs companies in the US alone almost $360 billion. Imagine if through the new systems proposed by the younger generation we could increase productivity by even 5%, the benefits to the company’s bottom line would be enormous.

  8. I AM FLOORED!!! In my opinion some of these readers are not pulling the right meaning from this article.

    Like Scott:
    Most of David’s assumptions about their behavior has little to do with their “cultural milieu” but with the fact that they are young and idealistic; as we all were. They haven’t yet had the crap kicked out of them in the work place. They haven’t yet learned the value of modifying or manipulating their behavior.
    For some reason we have got into the notion that we have to lead by the “fear me” and “because I said so” mentality!! I am all for modifying and manipulating your behavior, but not by getting the crap kicked out of you so you have terrible memories rather then amazing learning experiences. Scott really contradicts himself, why do we have to conform too many people have a cardboard frame of mind. When becoming a leader you do have to take a different approach for not only your younger individuals, but every individual. Corporations are consistently utilizing outdated methods of management and corporate structure. Leading by respect and a mutual feeling of trust, I don’t want some old lonely man telling me I have to take emotional abuse from some vengeful manager so that my edges will be rounded off!

  9. Great article! One more thing I would add to the “Canary” list:

    They will point out inefficient processes and technology.

    Many of the corporations I have worked with talk about how difficult it is to hire for entry-level positions, because young workers demand the latest technological tools. Well, duh! Maybe the problem is not with the kids who are “spoiled” with tools like google docs, skype and wordpress, but with the old mainframe and legacy systems employees are often forced to use. It’s another opportunity to learn something positive from the Millennials.

  10. I really like Mr. Lee’s point that Gen Y workers and other workers all want the same things, but that Gen Y workers are more likely to do something about it. I agree that it’s important to realize that what Gen Y workers are saying may be exactly what other workers are thinking. Thank you for an insightful article!

  11. I agree whole-heartedly with David Lee’s comments. I have seldom found an item he has written that I don’t agree with. This is a person who understands business and the people that make up various generational components of an organization. I think as others have stated, that there are definite differences amongst the generations and I don’t think Mr. Lee is insinuating that ‘everyone’ that belongs to a particular generational category thinks in exactly the same way. The statements are merely trends that he sees in generalized terms – or at least that’s my perception. It is good business to provide your employees with as many of their wants and needs as you can – because otherwise they will ‘check out’ – maybe not physically; but certainly mentally and emotionally – and that does not make good business sense (in response to Todd’s comment). During difficult bouts of unemployment when jobs are not plentiful, employees will stay ‘for the ride’ but as soon as times change – and they will since history has a way of repeating itself – they will be gone. It is a smart business that realizes they must keep up with the times to keep people engaged. Besides, the fact that traditional hours of operation are no longer working and hierarchial types of management are going the way of the dodo bird have been evident for a long time.
    Great article David – as usual!

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