Millennials and Social Connection: A New Generation of Employee Engagement

As a Millennial who is also passionate about HR, I’ve been intrigued by the amount of attention my generation has received as we have begun entering the workforce.  Many of us are looking for full-time opportunities right out of college, while others of us are testing the waters (so-to-speak) with internships and part-time, entry-level positions.

A routine Google search for “Millennials in the workplace” reveals a seemingly endless supply of articles, most illustrating one overwhelming trend: employers are uneasy about and somewhat dumbfounded by the idea of a Millennial workforce.  The Washington Post projects that Millennials will make up 75 percent of the American workforce by 2025, so employers should probably start getting used to us.

What’s so different about us?  After all, elements of employee engagement are valid for every generation, right?  Yes!  The five elements of employee engagement are, in fact, applicable across all generations.  The core difference, though, resides in how the different generations prioritize each element.

Millennials and Social Connection

According to a Journal of Business Psychology article written by Andrea Hershatter and Molly Epstein, one stark difference between Millennials and other generations is our high need for social connection.

In 2006, Hershatter and Epstein conducted a study on trends of Millennials’ hopes, dreams, and aspirations.  The responses received through this study were very revealing.  When describing the ideal boss, one representative respondent said, “He should be honest and open minded.  He should be able to guide and should be a friend and co-worker.”  Wait a second . . . Friend?  Co-worker?  What happened to organizational hierarchy and maintaining professional distance from those who report to you??!?!

As if the unnamed respondent’s statement isn’t enough, findings in the same study indicate 66 percent of millennial business students reportedly agreed with the following statement: “I prefer personal relationships with my bosses.”  What of the Gen Xers?  Only 52 percent responded similarly—clearly, there’s a significant difference in the prioritization of social connection.  This trend is also evident in DecisionWise employee engagement survey data, which shows Millennial survey respondents as generally being the population least satisfied with levels of social connection in their organizations.

So, the message to all employers looking to engage their millennial employees: connect with them.  Create an organizational culture that fosters and promotes development of positive relationships among employees and across departments and regardless of job title. The side benefit is that employees from other generations are also likely to respond well—higher levels of connection within your organization can help engage employees from any generation.

And to you middle managers, try not to have a myocardial infarction if you discover one of your new Millennial employees has a lunch or golf date with your boss’s boss.  According to Hershatter and Epstein, Millennials expect to work in hierarchically flat organizations with ready access to senior leadership.  If this kind of access is not typical, there’s a good chance we’ll initiate it ourselves.

If we Millennials can’t find a satisfactory level of social connection in our organizations, we will leave and seek a different professional setting—one that fosters openness and collaboration.  Personally, I wouldn’t quit a job that didn’t allow me to check Facebook in the office, but others from my generation have been known to do just that.  Just sayin’.

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Related White Paper: ENGAGEMENT MAGIC®: The Five Keys of Employee Engagement

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