APA Center for Organizational Excellence: Good Company

Resources for Employers

Good Company Blog

Dr. Matt Grawitch: September 2008 Archives

Recently, there has been a lot written about effective ways to manage Generation Y and Millennial employees. A recent article in Personnel Today emphasized the need for an organization to adapt to these employees rather than requiring them to adapt to the organization. The article focuses on career development planning, giving employees autonomy, providing work-life balance opportunities, and allowing employees to utilize networking software (such as Facebook), and providing continuous feedback.

There are at least two issues that exist in these commentaries on younger workers, and these issues are seldom addressed. First, these articles represent a shift in terms of who is supposed to fit in. Traditional management approaches typically make the assumption that employees are to be socialized into the existing culture. However, many of the current articles on younger workers seem to suggest that organizations should change to accommodate these younger employees, ignoring the presence of older generation workers. While organizations can tailor specific benefits and practices to meet the needs of different employees, it seems like an extremely tall order to ask organizations to overhaul their entire culture—which is vital to successfully implementing and supporting programs—to meet the needs of a sub-group of employees. Furthermore, culture change tends to be extremely difficult, painful, and lengthy, so changing the culture for existing employees will likely not occur until after those employees have left the organization. By the time culture change has occurred, odds are that this it won’t necessarily fit the post-Millennial workers…and the organization back to square one.

A second issue that is often not addressed is the structural issue in organizations. Hierarchical, mechanistic organizations tend to have limited flexibility, ambiguous promotion potential, and other issues that may reduce the ability of the organization to adapt to the needs of employee groups. Therefore, to be responsive to younger workers, a mechanistic organization may need to consider structural changes that will better allow it to meet the needs of those workers, such as a decentralized management system or re-organization of workgroups and tasks. Again, structural changes can be very difficult, costly, and often require a corresponding change in culture. An organization that emphasizes top-down management possesses cultural assumptions that will need to be addressed if structural change is to be successful.

So, while adapting to the needs of Generation Y and Millennial employees sounds like a good idea, organizations and managers need to be aware that doing so comes with some demanding change requirements. Furthermore, because change can be painful and because resistance to change is a common problem, organizations that wish to adapt their culture and structure to fit the Generation Y and Millennial workforce need to be aware that some substantial work needs to be done before that can happen, along with considerations for the rest of the workforce.