Communicating with Millennials in the Workplace

Young communicators, managers differ in workplace perceptions, finds study co-sponsored by UA Plank Center

Millennials are often criticized for the different values, qualities and skills they bring to work. However, a new study co-sponsored by The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations at The University of Alabama and the Institute for Public Relations concludes that some of those differences will help advance and enrich the communication professions.

The study also reveals steps organizations can use to attract, engage, develop, retain and gain from top millennial talent. The millennial generation is generally defined as those who became adults near the turn of the 21st century.

A survey of 420 millennial communication professionals and 420 professionals who manage them revealed sharp differences in perceptions about millennials’ workplace values and attributes, engagement, leadership capabilities, and recruiting and retention drivers.

“Millennial communication professionals see the world differently—from context to connectivity to crisis—but they are digital natives with great passion for leadership and strong values for transparency, social responsibility, diversity and community—all touchstones for our profession today,” said Dr. Bruce K. Berger, co-investigator of the study and research director for UA’s Plank Center.

“We can draw from these skills and values to enhance practice and build a brighter future,” said Berger, professor emeritus of advertising & public relations in UA’s College of Communication and Information Sciences.

More than 80 percent of millennial communication professionals said they’re ambitious and passionate about work, but only half of their managers agreed.

Millennials rated themselves much higher than did their managers in work centrality, rewards and recognition, risk-taking and work-life-social values.

The biggest differences were in work centrality—ambition, passion for work and professionalism—and work-life-social values like diversity and social responsibility, as millennials consistently rated themselves higher than their managers did.

Almost three quarters (71 percent) of millennials said they are ready to lead. They rated their capabilities much higher than did their managers for their communication knowledge, vision, team leadership skills, ethical orientation, strategic decision-making and relationship-building skills.

Fewer than half of their managers agreed, citing deficiencies in all areas, especially ethical orientation and readiness to lead.

Managers rated their own engagement in the job (83 percent) and the organization (74 percent) significantly higher than millennials rated their work (73 percent) and organizational (59 percent) engagement.

While millennials with less than one year on the job were as highly engaged as managers, the level dropped sharply for those with one to three years of experience, before returning to year-one levels after seven years.

“Millennial communicators come to the job excited and enthusiastic,” said Berger. “But those qualities soon fade for some who leave the organization due to poor cultural fit, supervisory issues, or better opportunities.”

Two-thirds of millennial communicators said job decisions were driven most by reputation, culture and location. More than 60 percent said key retention drivers were culture, work-life-social approaches and development opportunities.

Managers’ perceptions of recruitment and retention drivers for millennials were significantly lower for most factors.

Millennial communicators said meaningful career planning, more mentoring and equal pay for men and women would increase retention rates.

Following analyses of the findings, the researchers recommended a five-process talent management ecosystem through which organizations can improve interactions with millennial communication professionals:

  • Recruit top millennial talent by contextualizing and personalizing their job and career.
  • Engage quickly by capitalizing on their excitement, energy and values.
  • Develop their basic job skills and plan strategically and systematically for the long term.
  • Retain them by combining traditional salary, benefits and performance awards with a focus on work-life-social issues (e.g., flex time, social responsibility and diversity).
  • Gain the benefits of the enriched ecosystem—high performance, leader readiness and a more open, mentoring culture.

“The key is to contextualize and personalize actions in each process in the ecosystem,” said Dr. Juan Meng, of the University of Georgia and a co-investigator for the study. “Contextualize here refers to how things fit into company strategy and culture, helping organizations meet goals. Personalize refers to how steps tie into a millennial communicator’s personal role and career, supporting individual aims.”

“Millennials will be leaders in our field for the next three to four decades,” said Dr. Tina McCorkindale, president and CEO of Institute for Public Relations. “Our study shows that a talent management ecosystem enriches the development of this generation’s bright hopes and values, benefitting individuals, organizations and the profession.”

For more details on the study, click here.

The University of Alabama Board of Trustees established The Plank Center in 2005. Named for public relations leader and UA alumna, the late Betsy Plank, the Center develops and recognizes outstanding diverse public relations leaders, role models and mentors to advance ethical public relations in an evolving, global society through a variety of initiatives. 

The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.