The simple key to retaining millennial talent? Trust.

Candace Howze,

Freelance Writer & Multimedia Artist

26 March 20210 min read

What causes such a transient nature among this population? And more importantly, how can companies keep employees engaged and happy for the long haul?

When Katherine Wilson, 32, is asked to describe her job future, she is certain: “At this point, I honestly don't see myself ever leaving, even if I was offered more money.”

This kind of commitment to an employer has become a unicorn in today’s workforce. It’s almost unheard of for a millennial employee (born between 1980 and 1996) to stay at a job for more than a year.

Twenty-five-year-old Corey Erickson’s longest stint at a company has been ten months. The talent acquisition specialist at a Portland-based property management company is “on my fourth job since I graduated in 2018.”

So what causes such a transient nature among this population? And more importantly, how can companies keep employees engaged and happy for the long haul?

Culture and balance make a difference

Job-hopping is not only annoying and tiresome for recruiters, it costs the economy a whopping $30 billion a year, according to Gallup. We can all agree that some events are out of our control and inevitably lead to job changes (aging parents, new relationships, pandemics, to name a few), but life milestones don’t happen every few months, or even years. Millennial turnover is less about youthful restlessness and more about one simple phrase:

“Company culture,” Erickson said. “My first job was basically an awful toxic culture–concerns people brought up to HR didn’t get addressed. The second job felt like a college town; I didn’t want to be best friends with the people at work. My last job bled into my personal life, I hardly got any sleep, it was totally draining.”

The incentives to retain talent are nearly endless, according to Tia Graham, the founder of Arrive at Happy, who consults companies like Kashi, Goldman Sachs and Hilton Hotels on how to build growth through engagement and happiness.

“When people don’t want to leave [their employer], the company is going to make more money,” Graham explains. “Companies that have strong cultures are also more innovative and creative and what organization doesn't need to be innovative on a daily basis?”

Wilson, a manager at an education tech company, says that while she’s happy with her current employer, it was a long journey to get there. Company culture played a big part. “The three things that made the biggest difference in liking vs loving my job have been managers trusting their employees, an organization's willingness to adapt with the times, and true work-life balance.”

How can you build trust with employees?

If you’re leading a team, how can you take direct and actionable steps to create the kind of company culture where employees at every level of the organization want to stay? Graham offers several tips:

  • Measure current employee satisfaction. “When I say employee I'm talking about hourly employees, supervisors, managers, all the way to the executive level,” Graham explains. Even asking a single question: How happy are you feeling at work? For smaller units, a one-on-one conversation based on open-ended questions are a great way to gather information. Your initial survey will create a baseline to build on goals for the next few weeks or months, so survey monthly.

  • Every person wants to know their work has meaning. “It’s up to the leadership to communicate to people how their job fits into how the company is trying to make society better.” Erickson feels the impact at her current place of employment inherently. “We work with the affordable housing side of things and I do believe we are making a difference. What I’m doing even as a recruiter to fill our positions is in turn helping others.”

  • Give employees their flowers. “Even positive feedback is uncomfortable, but let people know what they're doing well on an ongoing basis and be really specific. That's another way to boost happiness.”

  • Team build consistently. Hold regular bonding activities (not just an annual event) that provide employees a space to connect around something other than company strategy. “Research shows that when people have a friend at work, they are much more engaged, loyal to the company and more committed.”

  • Sharing is caring. Graham advises companies to share weekly how the company is doing against its goals–even if it’s lackluster news. Highspot, a Seattle-based company that creates AI-fueled sales platforms, was recently named the #2 best workplace for millennials by Fortune, and based on Graham’s advice, they’re doing a lot of things right. From inception, Highspot has held weekly all-company meetings where leaders share key information and ensure transparency. Here's how you can hold an all-hands meeting your team actually enjoys and benefits from.

  • People first. “Belonging is really, really vital,” Graham stresses. “Everyone should know they're cared for as a human being.” Wilson has felt “very connected” to teammates throughout her career but says the biggest difference at her current job comes down to connections with leadership. “They truly care about you, your growth, your ideas, and your mental health. Nobody is off-limits. I can email the CEO directly and get a sincere, personal response in a 5000-person company.”

Purpose beats out perks

Offering something meaningful is just as attractive as PTO and health benefits (although those are important too, of course). Melissa Kremer, Chief Human Resource Officer at Target Corporation explained that “millennials are focused on purpose-driven companies, and that’s one of their top considerations as they think about the organizations they choose to engage with.”

Highspot matches donations to the ACLU through Employee Circles, which gives employees structure to self-organize around important community issues. They also established channels for routinely collecting qualitative and quantitative feedback on company processes and recently, deployed surveys on topics like remote work and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

“Our biggest investment, literally and figuratively, is our people,” says Jennifer Palecki, Highspot’s Head of People. “We’re on a never-ending journey to give every person an environment in which they can thrive.”

How to make changes that build trust

For employees looking to institute change within their organization, Graham suggests a two-prong approach. Start with your personal sphere of influence, which everyone has. Scan your environment for challenges or opportunities you can help fix. Next, consider talking with leadership, but don’t go into the conversation empty-handed. “Have a clear list of improvements and very proactive, creative ideas to make those things better.”

Of course, this approach may not work at every company. Erickson recalls bringing up concerns to her first company regarding sexual harassment to no avail and having to sign a non-disclosure agreement after leaving the job. Wilson also advocated for change in her prior workplace but found “the manager would react with distrust and become very territorial.” Wilson described a situation in which a client requested her presence at a training event given her applicable expertise to the topic.

“The manager drove to the client-site to pull me aside and ask how I managed to ‘trick them’ into wanting me to go,” Wilson explained. “That level of unfounded distrust that I and my teammates experienced was deeply disheartening and a waste of company resources.”

At Highspot, the role managers play is much more reciprocal. “Their two-way line of communication to and from our employees gives us an open and real pulse on how people are actually doing,” Palecki says. “Our trust in our managers is combined with support for them, designed to uplift them as people first, managers second, so they can do the same for their teams.” Their weekly company all-hands meeting “provides an opportunity to hear from a wider, diverse range of voices,” which builds a stronger sense of purpose within the organization.

Trust builds happy workplaces

Ultimately, companies in any industry should note that “building a thriving company culture takes commitment” and is “always an ongoing effort,” according to Palecki. However, there is a strong commonality in employees who are happy with their place of work.

“I think millennials want to have the opportunity to have a positive impact and crave trust more than anything else,” Wilson reasons. “At my current company, I'm never told I'm too young to know what I'm talking about, I'm trusted to use my time wisely without micromanagement from leadership and I'm able to think creatively and solve problems (even if they are outside of my regular work).”

Erickson echoes this sentiment, with her values residing along the lines of independence. “Right now, I have autonomy, I’m trusted to get my work done and have a life outside of my job.” If company culture could be packaged into a gift box and given to every employee, perhaps the tag would read "Trust."

For more on building trust with your team, head on over to these 3 inspiring reads on leading a remote team with trust.

Written by Candace Howze

Originally Published: 26 March 2021

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