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Millennials Will Lead the Workplace Revolution

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On July 14, 1789, 225 years ago, the French Revolution began. It was a turning point in history, marking the beginning of the end of a class structure that favoured an elite of the powerful and the privileged over everyone else. At its heart was a basic belief in the rights of every man.

It may be a tad early for predictions for 2015, but after a recent eye-opening encounter with an executive looking to hire my company, it reminded me that our workplaces are facing a similar revolution. A revolution is coming, though the date is not yet set.

I can safely say that the workplace of today is not a happy place. The cartoon dysfunction of Dilbert is not as outlandish as it seems, which is likely why the comic is so popular. I conduct both qualitative and quantitative research and often counsel mid-level and senior leaders who are unhappy, unproductive and have no innovative ideas. The cynicism I see in the workplace today is almost as shocking as the attitude of those who are in charge of managing workers.

Since I launched my business, executives have told me that they didn't have the time, money nor inclination to train and promote anyone other than the top 20 per cent of their leadership, because that is where they believed their profits came from. Wrong. The negative financial effects of ignoring 80 per cent of your workforce are as damaging as they are prevailing. Let me give you one example of what I have heard in the past nine months.

During my research for a new business pitch, several employees in a large organization told me that their employer thought of them as a commodity. They knew if they didn't produce they would be traded (fired). I found this hard to believe until I spoke with the "C" class executive in charge. She said that there was no time allocation in the day for these people to be trained to lead; they got what they needed in their on-boarding. There was no capacity, financial or otherwise to bother with these people. If they didn't like they could leave.

Her organization has a churn rate of 50 per cent, which is costing her firm $1.8 million annually in replacement costs and lost productivity. But she is not going to change: she believes everyone, except herself is disposable. She is part of the elite, even though she isn't a member of the so-called 1 per cent. She is well paid executive who rose through the ranks and works for the 1 per cent. She sees no value in worker bees and believes they can be replaced.

In the same way the French Revolution gave birth to democracy, the years since the 2008 recession have created a cynical workforce that doesn't trust in leadership and is looking to leave for a better opportunity. A revolution, likely a quiet revolution, is coming. I doubt anyone will rise up with pitchforks to storm the glass and steel palaces of business, but I do believe you will see a huge shift in attraction and retention practices forced on companies. Millennials in particular have long memories -- evidenced by a six-year history of Facebook posts dating back to the dark days of 2008 and the short-lived Hope campaign of Barack Obama. Many lived through tough times when their parents were let go and they don't want that to happen to them.

Millennials favor new unions and support brands that develop their careers. They are rightly cynical, more demanding and less willing to trust that management will do the right thing for them, the rank and file. And that cynicism is well earned. Every day they come across news of layoffs, high youth unemployment, ridiculous executive bonuses and official pronouncements that the worsening situation is the "new reality."

A new type of union, one that is less focussed on blue-collar labor and more on professional services and hourly workers will become more attractive because of the poor and neglectful management of corporations; transient or hourly workers will become harder to find because education has now been designed for the masses; and just as importantly, boomers are retiring from the workforce as their meagre savings grow with the stock market.

On-boarding and developing Millennials must and will change from simply processing new worker bees to providing career opportunities, leadership development and corporate philanthropy based on the needs of the community rather than the requirements of the corner office corporate elite.

Until corporate Canada catches on to the emerging reality, Millennials will continue to walk away from jobs. This is not your father's generation. They are connected with each other like none before it through social media -- want a quick opinion or piece of advice? Send out a message to your group. As well, they are encouraged by their still bitter parents to "ditch employers" who treat them with disdain.

One of the companies I had pitched our learning systems to one year ago came back to me recently. Of their junior leadership team, 30 people under the age of 35, two-thirds (21) had left them for a different job in just one year! Some earned significant more money, others were taking less. All wanted to leave because they understood that they were not valued by senior executives. This group of talented young employees saw through the talk, saw no positive action and packed up. The company had no development program for its worker bees and are having a very hard time attracting people to replace them because of location and negative social media reviews.

I confidently predict that 2015 will be the year observers finally acknowledge the growing pushback from the emerging generation. You can only push people so far and then you become the company no one wants to work for. It's time for management to wake up. Whether you run a large company or a small firm, your employees have been living in fear that they are going to lose their job and many "bosses" have been using this leverage to work them harder.

Those conditions are pretty much over. Social media is allowing the masses to single out bad employers, Millennials are becoming more valuable as their boomer parents start to retire and they carry with them ideas about work and life balance that are vastly different than corporate Canada's executive elite.

Current leaders pander to the populous, they don't develop them nor do they develop community capital. They do however develop amazing pay packages that remind me of the privileged and the powerful of 225 years ago.

Interesting times lay ahead.

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