The Generational Culture Clash: Workplace Rules in the Millennial Era

Young entrepreneurs are not only creating a more personalised, fun-loving customer brand to appeal to the Generation Y and Millennial population – they are also making huge statements about what they think will attract the new generations of workers. This may just be HR’s biggest challenge yet.

The photos of young entrepreneurs appear on Instagram almost daily. In their twenties, their social media persona is confident and sometimes even outlandish. Often, they are dressed more for Sunday afternoon drinks by the beach than going to work. Their brands are raw, hot, youthful, successful and professional, all in one package. Technology, hospitality, design, online retail, entertainment and fashion are just some of the fast-growing product and service industries where these young entrepreneurs are making their mark. These are not the traditional industries with hierarchical structures, nor are these workers the middle-aged, highly experienced, hard-nosed entrepreneurs who were propelled by the mining or investment booms.


The photos tell us that they party with those whom they work, seemingly enjoying plenty of champagne, coffees, hugs and camaraderie with their seemingly youthful staff. Despite the fun, these twenty-somethings are educated and very driven. They are also the big employers of the future – progressive, natural and uninhibited employers.

These new entrepreneurs are smart people. Traditionalists might call them ‘reckless’, but they are well aware that their social media attracts not only customers but also like-minded talent. Their employer brands are highly social, extremely fun and seemingly unfazed by the throngs of HR rules and regulations that overarch western business.

If the social media images are true, we could be seeing Millennial entrepreneurs staging a silent revolution that may take us away from the ‘over-cautious’ compliance obsessed environments developed by Generation X and Baby Boom employers. Did I just hear some of you shout ‘Yippee’ and ‘Thank God’? Of course, there is absolutely no validity whatsoever in my assertion that the employer values of these entrepreneurs are somewhat looser than those of the big brands and many of the so-called ‘Employers of Choice.’ I am, for all I know, merely duped by their social media imagery and bravado.

Yet despite my self-doubt, I will stick to my guns and remind ‘Employers of Choice’ that they may have to take note of new tactics very quickly – you may just as quickly become an Employer of the Dark Age if you don’t! For example, it has been my observation that my generation had to be informed of human rights in the workplace. It seems different these days. Millennial employees don’t need to be ‘told’ as much as they need to be ‘reminded’. What is seen as a ‘responsibility’ to my generation is simply an expectation to this newer generation of workers. We should not underestimate the impact modern, western schooling and social media has had on what young people will expect from their employers.

The term ‘inappropriate behaviour’ will have a very different meaning in 10 years

Sexual harassment in the workplace, for example, is likely to be a very different concept for these newer generations. I watch my teenage children with their friends socialising together. Hugging is a norm. In general, they are more tactile and, may I say, more knowledgeable in their own attitudes towards sex and friendship than teenagers before them. It may not be naive to say that, in ten years, being the only staffer not hugged by your teammates may be seen as a version of ‘workplace bullying’. Privately counselling a Millennial employee about their tendency to be ‘overly tactile’ in the workplace will be more about the counsellor’s problem than the person on the receiving end.

The Millennial penchant for socialising and having fun will be a real challenge for management going forward. That’s not to say previous generations weren’t good at having fun, but fun was a concept more tied to ‘after work’ rather than ‘during work’. I think that within ten years, if employers don’t understand the Millennial meaning of ‘social’, ‘fun’ and ‘productivity’, then there will be a deep issue with engagement. Probably an employers’ biggest battle will be dealing with shorter spans of concentration. How we set up work cultures and physical environments, daily work structures and flows, as well as establishing lines of what is and isn’t okay will take some thinking. Of course, there are employers doing amazing work in this area, but the challenge has just started.

Perhaps one of the biggest dilemmas for these entrepreneurs is that they will still need to find ways to engender standards. The fun part of their employer brand might attract and engage the talent, but every good business has standards of work (and behaviour). If these are not always achieved, how are we going manage performance issues amidst the fun? Are we going to ‘influence’ the non-performer to leave over a drink?

While in some ways their seeming disregard for the compliance obsessed Baby Boomer and Generation X employers is refreshing, it may also be signalling a confronting time of workplace revolution. Politicians, regulators, employers and unions may all be scrambling for relevance within the context of fast changing expectations of how ‘work’ should look and feel. Yet, at the end of the day, every employer is going to need tools that set and apply standards. Sometimes these ‘fuddy-duddy’ laws and regulations are just the tools needed.

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