Want to Attract and Engage Millennials? Start with Workplace Diversity

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  • June 5, 2019

You’ve probably heard the stereotypes about millennials in the workplace: They are coddled. They reject traditional offices. They hop from job to job on a whim. They think work is dull unless they get craft beer on Fridays and can bring their dogs into work. Feel free to insert your own preconceptions about this generation here …

Although millennials may love an open office plan and free snacks in the breakroom, there are other, less obvious ways they’re changing the workplace for the better. The worldview they bring to the workplace is unique and shapes their goals and values; for example, one survey found that 86 percent of millennials would take a pay cut to work for an organization whose values and mission align with their own, and a Fidelity report discovered that millennials would, on average, take a $7,600 reduction in salary for an “improved quality of work life.” Increasingly, millennials are demanding that their work lives and their personal lives, particularly their moral and political values, are in alignment, more so than previous generations.

It’s been widely reported that millennials are pushing the boundaries of outdated diversity and inclusion programs and advocating for more rigorous and comprehensive understandings and practices. More importantly, it’s glaringly obvious to potential millennial hires when companies are behind the curve—simply put, organizations that don’t prioritize diversity risk their younger employees becoming disengaged from their jobs and may even push them away from applying. Alternatively, a company that goes the extra mile with diversity and inclusion will earn millennials’ respect and retain top talent.

The authors of A Great Place to Work for All: Better for Business, Better for People, Better for the World write, “The millennial generation, in particular, is a highly diverse group that expects meaning, growth, and balance at work. A reputation for developing employees and for welcoming people from all backgrounds and walks of life is increasingly crucial to attracting and retaining the best team possible. In short, the emerging business climate compels organizations to create an outstanding culture for everyone.” An outstanding culture is an engaging culture, and in such a culture, millennials bring their most creative selves to conversations because they feel they are supported by respect, safety, and honesty.

Diversity and Inclusion: Allies, Not Twins

Many organizations proclaiming a commitment to diversity hit a wall when trying to build more inclusive engagement. More often than not, the reason is that they think the two concepts are interchangeable. Though closely aligned, diversity and inclusion are unique and complementary; diversity focuses on the demographics of employees in a given context, and inclusion embraces individuals’ experiences and viewpoints to create a culture of belonging. Organizations can increase their diversity in representation by improving hiring and recruitment practices, but it doesn’t mean those hires will feel included and valued once on the job.

For millennials, the distinction is critical and more pronounced than with their older counterparts. This generation is the most diverse in history, so if practically everyone in the workplace looks and acts the same, red flags inevitably go up and millennial employees, even if they’re part of the homogenous majority, may disengage. Moreover, because of millennials’ strong belief that work should be meaningful, if inclusion is lacking and everyone’s voices aren’t heard and valued, younger employees won’t hesitate to check out—both mentally and by finding another job.

In Millennial Myth: Transforming Misunderstanding into Workplace Breakthroughs, author Crystal Kadakia writes, “Millennials have grown up in a time where diversity is so constantly present, where the majority is the minority, where learning about cultures around the globe is highly accessible, that they assume diversity exists everywhere and have a decreased barrier to accepting macro-differences. … We have grown up watching emerging voices, many who were initially anonymous, gain followings and make an impact, only to find out later what they looked like, their age, gender, and so on.” This incisive point about what diversity means for millennials highlights how critical it is for companies to stay ahead and keep top talent by committing to these values and practices on micro and macro scales.

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Expand What Diversity Means

Diversity traditionally has meant expanding possibilities for narrowly defined demographics, usually race/ethnicity or gender. Although that focus remains essential in an organization’s diversity mission, millennials are leading the charge to expand the parameters. The recognition of members of the LGBTQ community, persons with disabilities, generational groups (after all, an office with equal numbers of millennials, Gen Xers, and baby boomers qualifies as diverse), and other identifiers has taken hold with this generation.

Moreover, diversity has moved beyond demographics to experiences. The person who grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin and spent a year hitchhiking through Europe is as unique as the person who played college basketball and worked for a nonprofit for a decade—both bring a certain creativity that organizations can view as advantageous to raising their bottom line. Through this lens, a resume isn’t just a resume, and a life story defines a person as much as their ethnicity does. Millennials value this new diversity of experiences, which subsequently lends itself to inclusion.  

Inspire a Diverse Workforce

Although millennials value a good paycheck, they also value the intangible benefits that were rarely available to previous generations. Adopting policies and perks that embrace diversity and inclusion engages millennials and reinforces that what they do—on the job and outside the workplace—matters. Some of the features of a millennial- and diversity-inspired organizational culture may include:

  • Family leave for fathers.
  • Remote work capabilities.
  • Flexible schedules and leave-of-absence policies.
  • Open office plans.

An underlying key to engaging millennials, as Kadakia explains in The Millennial Myth, is trust. She writes, “That means believing that top talent genuinely wants to meet their goals and that one does not need to be micromanaged to do so. … We must build respect through approaching diverse work styles with curiosity. Who knows—in collaborating together and combining approaches, we may create some brand new, highly productive, engaging ways of working!” Organizations committed to diversity inspire trust in their millennial employees, who can be trusted right back to deliver productivity and excellence in their own, unique ways.

Building for the Future

Research by Deloitte and the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative found that 83 percent of millennials are actively engaged when they think their workplace is inclusive, as opposed to 60 percent engagement if their employers aren’t committed to inclusion. The high percentage is undeniable and the drop-off is telling—if a company doesn’t meet its employees’ diversity expectations, it can lose the best effort those employees can give, and worse yet, lose out on top talent.

Catering to millennials’ demands for diversity isn’t a trend—it’s the new reality of the modern workplace. Generation Z, roughly defined as anyone born this century, is beginning to enter the workforce and is poised to deliver a bigger impact than their predecessors. What seems innovative now with regard to diversity and inclusion will be the norm a decade from now, and organizations shouldn’t wait to engage the current generation of workers or the next.

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