5 Tips for Millennials to Succeed in a Workplace That Doesn’t Care About Your Feelings

The Associated Press
The Associated Press

Recently I read this criticism of “kids today” that fits millennials perfectly:

Whither are the manly vigor and athletic appearance of our forefathers flown? Can these be their legitimate heirs? Surely, no; a race of effeminate, self-admiring, emaciated fribbles can never have descended in a direct line from the heroes…

It’s from a letter to the editor in Town & Country magazine… in 1771. Of course, it is incumbent on every generation to complain about the younger generation. This is how they learn how the cold, harsh world works. My generation – Generation X – is known for being cynical. For this article, I will wholeheartedly embrace it.

There are numerous articles on how millennials work and live differently than previous generations. The New York Times even quotes experts from consulting firms that specialize in telling employers how to retain millennial employees. If firms need to be convinced to retain millennial employees then their value clearly isn’t self-evident. Employers don’t need “How to Feed and Care for Your Millennial.” They need “How to Train Your Millennial.” Better yet, millennials need to learn on their own.

For millennials who want to set themselves apart from the herd, here are some tips from a cynical Gen Xer. (For my millennial friends and coworkers – of course I don’t mean you.)

Arrive to Work on Time and Ready to Work

I’ve noticed that office hours have become more and more fluid over the years. During the 17 years I’ve worked in the Washington, D.C. area I’ve worked at several offices that “opened” at 9 a.m. To me that means planning for traffic, settling into my desk and being ready to work by 9 a.m. To millennials, this means you’re in the clear if you leave your house before 9 a.m. or have a good story about the metro being slow. Once they’re at work, they’re not necessarily ready to work. I’ve seen people arrive 30 minutes late, turn on their computers, then leave the office to pick up breakfast or coffee. That takes 10-20 minutes, and then they come back and eat at their desk. Now it’s 10 a.m. and nary a Word doc has opened.

In the past I’ve worked with millennials who find it so difficult to wake up at 8 a.m. that they cut time from basic grooming just to make it to work 30 minutes late. One guy convinced himself he could shower at night, then roll out of bed and go to work. Should he save even more time by dressing for work the night before? If I can tell you didn’t take a shower, it doesn’t work. Another coworker saved time by not brushing his teeth until he got to work. Don’t even get me started on the lost art of wearing clothes that aren’t as wrinkled as a prune. (Read this excellent article from Gavin McInnes for more help.)

If you want to stand out and EARN a raise or promotion, it starts with how you present yourself at work. Arrive on time and arrive ready to work.

Show Initiative

Generation X is the first latchkey generation. Nearly every day I came home to an empty house. I was responsible for making my own snack or starting my homework. I didn’t have a parent to remind me to do homework. I knew I had to get it over with so I could watch Family Ties or Murphy Brown. If I really finished homework early, I could go across the street and watch The Monkees reruns at a friend’s house that had cable.

Today’s millennials don’t have the initiative to work out solutions on their own. I thought it might just be my experience because I do have the tendency to be a know-it-all (no, really!), so maybe coworkers come to me because I do know it all.

However, I was pleased to have one of my favorite people, athlete and former Army soldier Derek Weida, confirm my suspicions about millennials. He is often asked what the best workouts are, how to get motivated, whether this or that is a good supplement to take, among many other things. He recently posted a rant about these questions. He was shirtless and in a bathtub. Needless to say, I was paying close attention. Even though he enjoys talking to people and answering questions, he had a message for all the people who don’t take the initiative to look for the answers themselves – or “fail forward” as he puts it. He said, “I’ve always just struggled and figured it out for myself and I think that’s where the growing takes place.”

Apply Derek’s advice to the workplace. Don’t start the journey of changing your life, your body, or your attitude by taking the easy road with directions written out for you. Don’t ask your boss a million questions to the point that he or she thinks you’re merely a typist and not a thinker. Show some initiative. Be mentally prepared to be rebuffed and be willing to try again. Look for answers on your own rather than expect them to be spoon-fed to you. I promise you’ll feel more connected to your work and your boss will notice your initiative.

(It should be noted that millennials who have served in the military, law enforcement, or other emergency services don’t need most of these tips. They’re already in fields that demands discipline and excellence.)

Respond to Emails

Millennials have created dozens of ways to communicate their emotions, their food, and their selfies using their phone. Yet, email still eludes them. Here’s a silly, maddening example. One day I brought lemon poppy seed muffins for coworkers. I emailed everyone what flavor they were. One by one, each person in the office asked me what flavor they were. The last inquiry came at 10:30 a.m. – an hour and half into the workday. For a generation that is always face-deep into a phone, why can’t they look at their email?

Given that a lot more offices are open-concept, email is even more important for productivity so others in the office aren’t bothered with conversations that don’t concern them. The business world still uses email. If you want to succeed in business, stop trying Snapchat filters and answer your damn emails.

(At this point, I won’t even bother giving a lecture on using the phone. Millennials will sit around and anxiously wait for a text rather than pick up the phone and call someone.)

Stop Bragging About Ignorance

The 1980s were filled with movies about the main character hiding his or her inexperience so that people would think he or she was competent and belonged; Working Girl, Risky Business, Trading Places, and The Secret of My Success, just to name a few.

Sure there are problems with the “fake it ‘til you make it” strategy, but it beats today’s millennials opting out of responsibility by saying, “I don’t know,” or, “I don’t know how to do that.” In high school I was a counter clerk at a dry cleaners. After working there a year or so, I was eventually allowed to close up the cleaners at the end of the day. This included transferring money from the registers to the safe, making sure all loads were ready for the next day, locking the doors, and setting the alarm. The anxiety over doing everything correctly was actually liberating! It was important to me that I learned every part of the business and that my boss trusted me. Now over 20 years later, I recently asked my former boss if he lets any of his current crop of counter clerks close up. He said, “No one seems interested or capable.”

A line I often hear millennials say is that they don’t know how to use a fax machine. I won’t pretend to extol the virtues of the fax, but bragging about not knowing how to do something is very off-putting. Other popular phrases are, “I don’t know how to change the toner,” or, “I don’t know where the extra garbage bags are kept.” Well, find out! No task, especially in this economy, is beneath you. Be the person your boss can rely on for tasks big and small.  Rather than throw your hands up in the air and give up, be a problem solver. As the Marines often say – Adapt, Improvise, Overcome.

Expect a Paycheck and Nothing Else

Earlier this year a millennial wrote an open letter to the CEO of Yelp about how difficult life was for her while working for the company (she was fired after her public pout). I could take down the article point by point, but others have already done that pretty well. Instead, I’ll focus on one perk of working for Yelp and many other companies – free snacks. She complained that her floor, occupied by low-experience workers, go through their snacks the fastest and they have to roam other floors looking for more snacks. She also complained, “we’re not allowed to take any of [the free snacks] home because it’s for at-work eating.”

During the dot-com boom, there were a ton of stories about creative perks companies offered employees – ping pong tables, snacks, sodas, and gym memberships. These perks are great, but employees shouldn’t take advantage of them or expect them. The former Yelp employee talks about making meals out of the free snacks to the point that the supply was depleted. Should the responsible employee who budgets her money so she can purchase her own meals be out of luck because she doesn’t hoard her own supply of free snacks? It reminds me of when parents put the cookies on the top shelf so children won’t eat the entire package at once.

In conclusion, many millennials just need to stop acting like children. Stop “adulting” ironically and do it for real.


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