Millennials get a bad rap in the workforce. These 20-somethings are often accused of being disrespectful, indifferent to authority, overly self-confident, needy and prone to job hopping (the new gigs are probably found via that Facebook feed they’re always scrolling).

Illustration: Katie Carey

Many of these criticisms are exaggerated, but genuine differences do exist between the youngest employees and their elders. And, like it or not, it’s something employers have to deal with. Millennials now make up the largest generational cohort in the Canadian workforce, at about 37%. By 2028, it’s estimated that three-quarters of workers will hail from the generation born between the early 1980s and 2000.

Chip Espinoza, co-author of Managing the Millennials: Discover the Core Competencies for Managing Today’s Workforce, says millennials’ expectations can pose challenges for older managers accustomed to a more traditional, seniority-based system. “For a lot of small business owners [starting out], it was kind of sink or swim—it was trial by fire,” says Espinoza. He stresses that small businesses need plans to engage their junior employees. “Millennials’ love language is career development,” says Espinoza. “If you don’t have an articulated plan for them, they’re going to go for someone who does.” Managers should take an active interest in their younger workers—something small businesses are uniquely well-equipped to do, as owners often already have a more hands-on approach.

Millennials also value civic engagement. One study suggests nearly 70% rank contributing to society as their highest priority. “You don’t have to be a big company to give back to the community,” says Jeanne Meister, founding partner of consultancy Future Workplace and co-author of The 2020 Workplace: How Innovative Companies Attract, Develop, and Keep Tomorrow’s Employees Today. “If you already have this as a value, I would tout it in your recruiting materials.”

Meister also recommends building “generational IQ” by providing training on the cohorts’ differences—and their benefits. Employers can pull together age-diverse groups for social events or seminars, or simply ensure that work teams are multi-generational. Reverse mentoring—in which a younger employee pairs with a more senior person for a two-way exchange of expertise—is also an effective way to bridge age gaps. “The big benefit is diversity of thought,” says Meister. “Companies, especially small businesses, have to think, ‘Millennials are not just my current and future employees. These are my current and future customers.’”

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