How to Get Younger Employees to Show Up, Pitch In, and Excel on the Job

Diane Thielfoldt

Diane Thielfoldt is co-founder of The Learning Cafe (, a consulting firm dedicated to helping organizations develop, engage, and retain the talent of every generation. Also a workshop facilitator and an engaging speaker, she has educated hundreds of managers on issues involving the multigenerational workforce. She can be reached at

October 1, 2015

Here is a scenario that may hit home: Your organization has taken great care in finding and hiring various promising young workers—but they are not showing up for work or you cannot retain them after you hire them. What is going on and what can you do about it?

This article will look at how to keep younger employees—specifically members of the Millennial generation (born 1980 to 2000)—engaged in your organization and on your team. Engaged employees are more likely to show up, perform well, and stick around. Of course, many of the tips here can apply to employees of all ages, but they are slanted to target the unique work styles, motivators, and other preferences of Millennials.

Employee Engagement Done Right

Employee engagement refers to the extent to which employees are motivated to contribute to success and are willing to apply discretionary effort to accomplishing tasks important to the achievement of organizational goals. In other words, it is their “buy-in” to your organization’s success, both on a day-to-day level and in terms of the big picture. Employees who are engaged care about doing a good job and about their contribution to the team and the company.

How to engage employees—particularly new and recent hires—is fairly easy, but often ignored. Even those organizations that invest a lot of time, money, and thought in attracting good job candidates do not do enough to keep those candidates once they are hired. Research shows that an employee’s experience with their new employer during their first 90 days on the job is critical—engage them then, and you are a lot more likely to keep them, and to have a productive worker.

It is a given that, ideally, you are hiring employees for their talents so that you can groom them to be excellent workers within your organization. Once hired, your organization should have a process in place to welcome and orient new employees to the job, the culture, and the social network. Managers should immediately and continuously set expectations and define outcomes, and help employees grow by providing regular feedback. Ideally, your organization should create and value a climate of learning and teaching.

When trying to engaging Millennial hires, managers and direct supervisors must practice flexibility in 3 areas in order to engage these younger employees: climate, communication, and career.

1. Climate: This is a big one, because it should involve your entire organization. To engage Millennials, you will need to create a positive, empowering, and flexible work environment. Any manager can take some small steps to change the environment—after all, team atmosphere is a reflection of management tone and priorities. Make an effort to build a climate that fuels engagement, which in turn energizes and empowers. To create an enjoyable and engaging climate, imagine your workers are volunteers, not paid employees. Identify what about your leadership keeps them coming to work for you. You can bridge the gap by respecting work-style difference and considering the value or importance of work and life balance and quality of life issues. Ask yourself: What can I do every day to create a productive, energizing climate for my team? Answers might include:

  • Regularly walk around and greet your Millennial workers.
  • Keep your commitments and appointments with Millennials.
  • Find your sense of humor!
  • Celebrate successes.
  • Encourage relationship building.
  • Increase camaraderie-building events.
  • Be open to new ideas and innovation from Millennials.
  • Be open to flexible work schedules.
  • Know every Millennial’s name, their family members’ names, and at least one hobby or
    outside interest.

2. Communication: Messages matter and it will help if you can customize your communication for Millennials. Small, daily actions add up to a larger communication pattern that either draws Millennials in, or pushes them away.The more feedback and instructions Millennials receive, the more value they feel they are putting toward their career and the organization as a whole. Ask yourself: Does my communication draw Millennials in or push them away? Drawing Millennials in might include:

  • Connect in person, or by email, phone, or text.
  • Schedule a lunch hour with Millennials and get to know them.
  • Express your appreciation for their efforts and contributions.
  • Tell Millennials “You count”—and explain how their work makes a difference.
  • Meet with Millennials once a month to discuss work. Ask:
    • What is going well?
    • What is not going well?
    • What can I do to support you?
  • Shift your communication style to 75/25—practice listening 75% and talking 25%.
  • Help Millennials separate what they can control from what they cannot.

3. Career: Coaching counts, and candid discussions about career aspirations, reputation, and sharing the lessons of experience are vital to engaging Millennials for the longer term. Make sure Millennials see the link between their work and the organization’s mission, goals, and values. Ask yourself:  Do you talk with your younger employees about their work, their job, their career? Some actions might to initiate might include:

  • Set clear expectations.
  • Have career conversations.
  • Offer career development opportunities.
  • Work with Millennials to develop a list of potential projects, challenging assignments, and tasks that could enhance their career.
  • Confirm that each Millennial has a specific career or professional development plan (even if it does not include working at your organization for decades
    to come).
  • At least once a month, tell Millennials why and how their work is significant.
  • Encourage informal mentoring.
  • Keep (or start!) giving feedback.
  • Help Millennials build skills in place.
  • Discuss reputation.

Remember: It is not any one action that will guarantee engagement and retention, but a series of actions or small steps in partnership with each employee.

What Makes Millennials Stay

We know that retention is often the result of engagement. At The Learning Café, we wanted to understand if what makes Millennials stay was any different than why other generations stay.  So we surveyed approximately 500 Millennials working in a wide variety of industries, and asked each to identify their top 7 reasons to stay in a job. Here are those reasons, with a little commentary.

  • Challenging, stimulating, varied work: As Millennials stay in a job, give them new responsibilities, or ask them to take on special projects that play to their strengths—or stretch them. Avoid the same day in, day out routine as much as possible.
  • Making a difference, a contribution: Millennials like to know how their role and current work is contributing to the team, the project, and the organization. So make the big-picture outcome part of routine communication in task assignments.
  • Enjoyable work environment: This one is pretty self-explanatory. You do not have to throw a party, but making the day-to-day positive, sharing a joke, or celebrating small successes can shift your culture.
  • Career growth, learning, and development: Cannot offer a promotion? How about asking a Millennial to learn a new skill and then teach it to others? Or have them troubleshoot a complex problem, work with a senior worker on a key project, or try a short-term job rotation.
  • Appreciation/Non-monetary recognition: Everyone likes to be appreciated, but this can be a make-or-break job satisfier for Millennials—so show your thanks with regular praise, buy lunch for the team once in a while, or share a note of appreciation from senior leaders.
  • Healthy work-life balance: This is where flexibility comes in; finding a way to give workers flexible schedules allows them to balance out family, social lives, and obligations. Millennials who find flexibility in their workplace are more likely to stay.
  • A good boss: What is a good boss? Millennials describe this person as one who stimulates, stretches, and challenges them; who gives them opportunities to learn and grow; who offers exposure to senior leaders; who creates a fun and informal environment; encourages teamwork and emphasizes collaboration; who communicates with technology; provides structure; and acknowledges Millennials’ confidence.

Some of the tips here require organization-wide change, new processes, and universal acceptance that culture matters. Others can easily be successfully adapted by frontline supervisors. No matter which items you can act on, any positive change you can undertake to attract and keep Millennials will improve the likelihood that you will engage more employees, which in turn means better productivity and a more successful organization. Ultimately, you yourself are likely to be happier—and more engaged—in your workplace as well.


Meet the Millennials

Today’s workforce includes nearly 80 million members of the generation born between 1980 and 2000. Millennials were raised at the most child-centric time in our history, and perhaps it is because of the showers of attention and high expectations from parents that they display a great deal of self-confidence, to the point of appearing cocky.

Millennials perform best with some structure, especially younger Millennials who are newer to the workplace—they are learning to work as well as learning the work. Millennials have a bit of a “whatever” view of title and position, showing less reverence for role that is simply based on experience, which they think Baby Boomers overemphasize. What they respect is knowledge and learning. They want a relationship with their boss. They will leave for greener pastures if challenge, learning, and fun are absent from their work.

Millennials work well in groups, preferring collaborative work to individual endeavors. In addition, they are used to tackling multiple tasks with equal energy, so they expect to work hard. They are effective multitaskers, having juggled school, sports, and social interests as children. They want to be involved and stimulated—they do not want to be bored.

The Millennials are now officially the largest and most influential adult population in American history.

The Power of Coaching and Development

Ninety-eight percent of Millennials place high value on coaching, learning, and development; these are frequently given as a reason to stay with an organization. To encourage Millennials’ engagement coach them through the following development activities.

  • Lead an after-action review on an important task or project.
  • Troubleshoot a complex problem.
  • Lead a cross-functional meeting or a highly visible meeting.
  • Learn a new skill and teach others.
  • Lead a significant part of a major initiative.
  • Shadow a manager in an important meeting.
  • Benchmark other departments, divisions, companies.
  • Work with a senior manager on a key project.
  • Participate in a professional association in a management role.
  • Attend a Quarterly Business Review or important strategy meeting; debrief after.
  • Job rotation with a specific assignment and specific learning goals.
  • Spearhead change initiative/project.
  • Handle a key negotiation or solve a tough problem with a client.
  • Organize a function or companywide event.
  • Take a significant role in a companywide initiative.

Engagement Quiz Self-Assessment

How engaging are you? Check your EQ (engagement quotient) by responding to the following 6 statements.

  • In the last 30 days, I’ve acknowledged, recognized, or celebrated Millennial accomplishments.
  • I am flexible about work schedules. When a Millennial needs flexibility, I consider options
    and I usually find a solution.
  • I delegate tasks to challenge Millennials and enrich their jobs.
  • Our team’s focus on goals is crystal clear; we acknowledge progress often.
  • I encourage Millennials to talk freely and openly to me about their career aspirations. As a result,
    I know each person’s career goals.
  • I openly communicate to each of my Millennials about their individual strengths and opportunities for improvement. If they could read my mind, they
    would not be surprised.