Beyond Millennials: Stop Treating Your Employees as Stereotypes

Judi Samuels

Hard truth: if you’re designing your employee experience (EX) strategies around segmentation by age group, you’re doing it wrong.  

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Just as marketers continue to chase the millennial segment to grow their businesses, companies are obsessed with catering to this cohort in the workplace. In fact, the
U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation
posited that millennials are the most studied demographic of all time. As the media has led many to believe, members of “Generation Me” are disrupting the workplace with their demands for purpose, pay raises and ping-pong tables. Better make your culture millennial-friendly, or you’ll lose them to the competition.

Sure, those “entitled,” “job-hopping” millennials make for good headlines, but painting an entire cohort with the same brush doesn’t give you the full picture. Though millennials are currently the largest cohort (35% of the U.S. labour force, according to Pew Research Center), the reality is that today’s workforce is multi-dimensional and multi-generational. There are now four generations in the workforce—Gen Z, millennials, Gen X and baby boomers—and we’re all the same: we’re human.

If you’re in charge of employee experience strategies at your organization, it’s possible you’ve replaced a focus on the whole human with a focus on specific demographics. Your business decisions might be influenced by the hype about millennials and how to make them happy in the workplace. But you need to remember you are also part of that workplace. You need to consider yourself, your cohort and anyone who came before you—and those who will come after. In other words, think more human-centred and less business-focused. Ask yourself: How are you ensuring all age groups are engaged and fulfilled? How are you engaged and fulfilled?

To be successful, look cross-generationally and forget about catering to specific generations. Find out who is in your workforce—go beyond demographics and personas, and get to know their individual needs, goals and circumstances. It may seem daunting, but that’s how you motivate employees, get them to do their best work, and connect them more deeply to your organization. There’s a lot of heavy lifting to do, so let’s start with three steps: 

1. Map the moments that matter: As in marketing, it’s easy for employers to build a narrative around different age groups culled from a database. But have you considered identifying and mapping the moments that matter for your employees? If you do, you will get to know the person, not the persona.

At Bond, we use engagement mapping to identify the key moments that matter most for your employees and help clients create actions around those. Engagement mapping can span everything from the onboarding experience to retirement to the smaller purposeful moments in the day-to-day that can make huge differences. You can even start with your own journey, from your day-to-day at the office to big milestones in your career. What are the moments that matter to you?

Once you understand individual employees’ preferences, motivations, goals and circumstances, look for commonalities and differences. For example, while a 20-year-old’s ambitions are going to be different from a 50-year-old’s ambitions, the commonality is ambition itself. It doesn’t matter what year they were born in. Think about EX strategies that will be relevant for everyone and that reflect your organization’s culture and purpose.

2. Personalize the moments for your employees: Those of us who aren’t millennials grew up in a workforce that taught us to leave our home life at home. Now we know that caring for employees’ personal lives creates engagement, which is good for business—Forrester research shows that companies with highly engaged employees see an 81% increase in customer satisfaction and a 103% reduction in employee turnover. When you make it easy for people to live their lives and work for you, you’re showing you care. Therefore, they won’t want to let you down, and productivity goes up. In fact, a recent study by The World Economic Forum showed that happy employees are 13% more productive.

Get to know your employees’ lives outside of work and give them the support they need, whether it’s adjusting an office worker’s hours so he can deal with a family issue, or not scheduling a retail employee when she has to take her child to swimming lessons. Bring empathy to the table and make decisions that are good for employees, because you’ve been there—and are there—too.

The second part is finding out what drives employees and what they need in order to be successful. While there are people who are perfectly content to work 9 to 5 and just get the job done, every individual wants to learn and grow and be connected to purpose. For example, you can give a sales person a target that will earn them a big commission. But if you can combine that with an opportunity to make a contribution to a personal cause—think cancer research, children’s education, or even sports endeavours—now their connection to the job isn’t just about money, which they can make anywhere. The connection to the job is also the purpose of the brand or organization, and you can’t replicate purpose. As Harvard Business Review found, 9 out of 10 employees are willing to forgo a percentage of their lifetime earnings for greater meaning at work.

3. Make the most of the skills different generations bring. There’s a big push on skill-sharing and knowledge-sharing initiatives where people from different age groups can learn from each other. These programs are really useful, but don’t design them in a vacuum. Think about yourself. Are you sharing your skills with others? Are you open to learning from others so that you can grow your own career?

 Avoid the generational trap when you’re identifying the strengths each employee has and the insights can be cross-fed across the company. It’s easy to default to “younger employees have the digital/tech skills,” but remember: the older folks actually grew up with technology in the workplace. They were working when the Internet was born. And with tenure under their belts, they know what’s going to work and what’s not within the confines of the business operation.

The bottom line is to stop making business decisions as if they don’t impact you. Put yourself in the mix, as an employee and a human being. Employee experience isn’t about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and walking a mile. It’s about realizing you are walking miles in your own shoes. What would make a difference for you?