Published in Nov-Dec 2016
It’s become almost impossible to enjoy a decent cup of coffee with one’s peers these days. Whenever I talk to them the conversation inevitably comes around to HR management and the vows associated with it. “In the old days...,” I am told, “employees joined companies for life.” I always wonder how way back that could be, like when people had just discovered cave painting perhaps?
With a few exceptions I don’t know anyone, even from my generation, who planned to be in the same organisation for life. And at 46, I am already from an era when dinosaurs used to walk the earth. I was once told in confidence by a head hunter that in the current market if you have been in the same organisation for more than six years, you have already messed up your resume. Apparently people think one lacks ambition and drive if one stays in the same company for long periods.
So while Baby Boomers stuck around for seven years and my peers from Generation X think that six years is too long, the current generation seem to start to become restless in six months and leave (on average) after two years. The Millennials, as they are called, are not difficult to recruit but they are notoriously difficult to retain. In an organisation I worked for in the recent past, it was so bad that people were leaving faster than we could hire them. However, that experience proved to be key in helping me understand what this generation is looking for.
From those learnings, I was able to develop policies in my current company which at present has an employee turnover rate close to zero percent. That, by the way, is a huge achievement considering my entire staff, with the exception of myself, are not only Millennials, but also work in the digital industry which is known for ridiculously high turnover rates.
Although I am no expert in HR, through my experience here, in my humble opinion, are some of essentials that Millennials look for in an organisation:
1. They are the most important asset and would like to see that fact reflected in company policies
There was a time when companies were made of bricks and mortar, and management was under the impression that their most precious assets were things like computers and other machines. These days, a company is simply the sum total of the talent of all of its employees. None of your clients give a hoot about the latest computer or printer you installed, they only care about how efficient your account management guy is or how creative your copywriter is. So your company’s brand is actually the aggregate of all your employee brands. While most senior Pakistani executives will not find this a great revelation, I am sorry to say that the majority of them really do treat their photocopier with more respect than they do their employees. Even when they do, they are just giving them lip service. Millennials are the smartest generation yet and they can call bullshit when they see it.
2. Company politics and injustice
Even today when I sit among senior people, they boast about how they manipulated a junior in order get something out of someone else, or how they manipulated the system in order to get something for themselves or their favourite junior. It sickens me. Industries are small ecosystems and Millennials are extremely well connected. Organisations with a bad political culture or a manipulative management are quickly singled out as bad places to work in. The end result is that only the poorest of talent end up applying there. For example, in advertising (where I previously worked) there are seven agencies among the top 20 that no good Millennial wants to work for. Horror stories have been shared on social media of how employees are treated there. The net result is that not only do they fail to attract good people, but they can’t retain any that are accidentally recruited.
Most young people leave because they don’t see a clear path forward in an organisation. Management in this country is particularly good at keeping things vague.
3. Culture, culture, culture
Yes, everyone works for money. Yet you have to be really daft if you think that you are the only one paying good money. Good employees are constantly bombarded with offers through LinkedIn and other such platforms. They can get the money they want, so monetary considerations are secondary. What they are interested in are organisations which have a great culture. (It is not within the scope of this article to discuss company culture as it would require a separate discussion altogether, but if you don’t understand the concept, then you have pretty much decided to remain a mediocre organisation for the foreseeable future).
4. Manage expectations and a clear career path
Most young people leave because they don’t see a clear path forward in an organisation. Management in this country is particularly good at keeping things vague. I know senior people at local companies who feel that if they give clear targets to their employees, and they achieve them, they would then have to reward them accordingly. To save themselves from doing so, they avoid putting objective evaluation systems in place, which also gives them the ability to promote the people they want to as opposed to those who actually deserve it. Millennials are frustrated by this, especially when they feel they are not moving ahead in their career. They aggressively seek places that have good programmes on career development.
"Ninety percent of business owners I talk to ask me why they should invest in people who will eventually leave. Everyone eventually leaves, I tell them, and if you are the kind of organisation that is holding a Millennial back from developing, he will leave earlier."
Millennials know they need to be extremely competitive to stay employed in an ever competitive market place. They are wary of organisations that do not provide structured programmes to develop and add new skill sets. Organisations, however, perceive this in a very selfish light. Ninety percent of business owners I talk to ask me why they should invest in people who will eventually leave. Everyone eventually leaves, I tell them, and if you are the kind of organisation that is holding a Millennial back from developing, he will leave earlier. But this logic seems to fail on business owners here.
6. Make the work environment a fun place to be
I recently came across an email that decreed that employees take cigarette breaks for the exact duration of three minutes and not a second more. The email stated they needed to be back on the desk immediately after. What kind of sadistic company has rules like that? If you think that a lot of people are wasting time, there are more intelligent ways to address the problem. Turning your office into a military school from the 50s is not the way to retain Millennials.
7. Current employees as ambassadors
Finally, an organisation should have the kind of environment that makes employees happy. They are your best brand ambassadors. Remember when I talked about Millennials being connected? Well you can get that to work for you rather than against you. Happy employees talk about how they are happy in their workplace and this attracts others to work for you. And NO! You cannot force your employees to write good things about you on social media... that is the kind of thing employees Snapchat about in private.
My organisation has gone to great lengths to develop a healthy environment and a fun culture, and more importantly is the fact that we did it with sincerity. Employees don’t even have to work at their stations. They can unplug and walk over to a nature corner where they can sit on floor and use the WiFi. They are allowed to take breaks whenever they feel like it as long as they deliver what is due for the day. They have free access to social media and are allowed to shoot, edit and put up crazy digital content on the company page. This is a very different kind of model and most managers from my generation predicted that I would end up with spoilt employees who will fail to deliver. Well the result has been the complete opposite. My team has very high ownership of the company and they are the best ambassadors for my brand.
Syed Amir Haleem is CEO, KueBall Digital. email@example.com