Discussing the efforts of millennials in the workplace is an exercise in duality. On the one hand, the stereotypical millennial is an entitled, easily distracted employee always looking ahead to the next move. On the other hand, that same generation has the technological skills that come with spending most of their lives online, as well as a propensity to push back at reasons why things aren't possible.
No matter which interpretation you subscribe to, there's no denying that the future of the business world belongs to millennials. The generation born between 1981 and 1997 now makes up a plurality of the U.S. workforce, with 53.5 million millennials represented in 2015. That means forward-thinking (or succession-minded) CPA firms and other employers must find ways to retain their most talented millennials and nurture the characteristics that make them unique.
Study the parents
To understand the differences between millennials and Generation X (born between 1961 and 1981), we need to look at their parents. Both groups were raised by baby boomers, but while Xers were raised by older boomers, who valued a sense of independence more highly, millennials were raised by a younger, more self-esteem-oriented group.
“Suddenly, it was a focus on your child,” recruiter Shira Harrington said at the 2015 Leaders’ Summit. “Protect your child. Esteem your child. Encourage your child. Empower your child. It was a radically different way of looking at parenting.
“It’s no wonder that in the workforce, some of the biggest workplace conflicts are between Xers and millennials.”
That shift in parental focus led to some different priorities for millennials compared to their older counterparts.
“For older generations, work is your identity,” said VSCPA member Kim Ruiz, CPA, the 36-year-old head of tax at LivingSocial in Washington. “That’s who they are. When you talk to millennials, they have a job, but they also have a family and/or extra-curricular activities, which can be equally or more important than their job. For them, it’s not a requirement nor fulfilling to be at the job all the time. “
Even the oldest millennials likely got their first glimpse of the internet in high school. And those are the ones who can remember life beforehand. Many millennials have been using computers throughout their lives. These so-called “digital natives” have spent their entire existence learning how to navigate the internet. For them, it's a given that the entirety of human knowledge is searchable online. For the last several years, it's been available on a device that fits in their pocket.
That means employers need to stay abreast of technological advances and shift best practices based on available technology and the marketplace. CPAs don't need to sit in the office from 9 to 5 Monday through Friday to perform their jobs. Firms can leverage technology to reap the benefits that flexible scheduling allows — allowing employees to work when they're most productive and letting them attend to family needs.
And flexible scheduling is an employee benefit firms can use to attract and retain employees who might have left for a new job under other circumstances.
“For millennials, there’s a need for understanding that they can get my work done, but don’t have to work within a confined time frame,” Ruiz said. “They know what they have to do and make sure to have it done within the required time-frame, whereas older generations want people to be in the office from 9 to 5 or later if you have chargeable hour goals. So there may be some growing tension between the generations on the need of showing facetime in the office and how much time is truly needed to get the job done. “
“If the older generations want to attract the best and the brightest and retain good people, there needs to be some kind of interaction or understanding that the traditional work life may not work anymore, especially for the growing size of the millennial work force.”
Fully embracing technology also means giving employees the tools they need to get their job done the most effectively. Maybe that's multiple monitors and up-to-date hardware and software. Gone are the fears that technological advances will make workers obsolete. Millennials embrace the tools that enable them to do their jobs more easily and productively.
“They’re not afraid of technology,” said Krystal McCants, CPA, a 35-year-old senior tax manager at CST Group in Reston. “The older generation, I think, fears that technology will take the job. The millennials are like ‘Bring it on. If the computer can do my job, my job’s easier and more efficient.’”
That could mean having the tools to remote in from a client's offices. But that same technology also allows CPAs to work from home after, say, attending a child's soccer game or putting children to bed. The heavy workloads of busy season are still in place, but the tasks can be accomplished at different times and places. The firms that leverage that the most effectively will have the edge in retaining their best employees.
Of course, working oneself to the bone is still a path to partner at many CPA firms. At some firms, it's the only path. But those firms may find themselves needing to offer other incentives for millennial employees to stay put.
“Nowadays, there are so many opportunities,” Ruiz said. “That’s the great thing about accounting — there are so many jobs out there that you can find something that fits what you’re looking for. Maybe you don’t want to travel all the time and work crazy hours and actually want to have a family. Thankfully, there are companies and firms out there who offer a more flexible working environment to allow you to have a family or be involved with activities outside of work.”
Some CPAs are laser-focused on making partner and are willing to go above and beyond even the intense hours of busy season. Others are content to rise high enough to provide for a good life, but intent on leaving enough time outside the office to be present for their families. The most successful firms have a place for each group.
“Not every person wants to make it to partner. Not every person even wants to make it to manager,” Darden Bell, CPA, a 30-year-old tax manager at Keiter in Glen Allen, said at the 2015 Leaders’ Summit. “So you need different tracks to meet people’s standards and make sure they’re an asset to your firm.”
“From the people I know who are in the traditional track at some of the larger accounting firms, they’re still working crazy hours and may even be travelling for weeks out of the year,” Ruiz said. “But that’s what they want. It’s hard to see myself as a partner at those types of firms because I know that’s what’s required to be successful at those places and that is not what I am looking for in life.”
The “different tracks” Bell mentioned can be crucial to retaining talented employees who don’t have the laser focus on making partner. The average millennial stays at a job for just 18 months, compared to three years for members of Generation X.
Employees switch jobs for many reasons, from financial ones to different circumstances to feeling like they’ve maxed out their potential at their current shop. The last of those reasons is becoming more and more prevalent at startups in industry, like LivingSocial.
“For my company, when you say 18 months, it feels like five years,” Ruiz said “It feels like that much has changed while working in a startup environment. I’ve learned so much in the two years I’ve been here that I might not have learned in two years in another company. I see people hopping because they think they’ve done everything they can at their firm and/or company or they are looking for a more flexible working environment.”
That has huge implications for succession planning and financial outcomes. With replacement costs for an employee estimated at 1.5 to three times that employee’s salary, all the job-hopping and training expenses can add up quickly.
So it’s important, when possible, to have in-house landing spots for employees who might not feel like their current track is the right one. Shifting an employee to a different division saves on replacement costs while keeping a valued employee in the fold.
Millennial employees are loyal to the right employer, but they’re loyal to their own careers above all else. That’s a necessity for a group who joined the workforce amid a recession. They work to make money and do good, but also to build a skill set and meet professional mentors.
Another result of the generational divide Harrington referenced is a new paradigm in feedback. Some employers are moving away from traditional performance reviews toward a more coaching-oriented model, which gets the same points across without as much of a judging implication.
Millennial employees, contrary to the stereotype, crave structure. They want clear guidance and set expectations. And they jump at the chance to earn extra autonomy with quality work.
“If you can prove that you’re responsible, that you can do the work, there’s an easier tendency for your employer to grant that flexibility,” Ruiz said.
A firm’s feedback structure is just one piece of its culture – that nebulous word that is at the same time all-encompassing and impossibly vague. But crafting the proper culture is essential in getting the workforce that any particular employer desires. In other words, firms attract the employees they deserve.
“It all goes back to the culture. There are firms that recognize that they want good people who still want a family life, but want to be successful, too,” Ruiz said. “I think there can be a balance, but I don’t think that balance is offered everywhere. I don’t see the traditional firms fully functioning that way yet. I think they may have to.”