10 burning questions about millennials in the workplace, answered

Senior Millennial Correspondent Anna Fitzpatrick explains how this now-dominant generation looks at everything from dress codes to do-goodism and salaries to swearing

With millennial employees now ascendant in workplaces across the land, managers are grappling with how to hire, retain and engage them. Canadian Business Senior Millennial Correspondent Anna Fitzpatrick answers our burning questions about how to approach this exotic species of office fauna.

Do perks really trump salary?

This question is like trying to pick between having a dog that can do coffee runs and being best friends with Rihanna: a fun game that has little bearing on reality. Like many post-recession pros, I rotate through freelance and contract gigs to earn dough, which made me give serious side-eye to a recent Glassdoor study finding that 89% of 18- to 34-year-olds would prefer more perks to a pay raise. I brought this up with Lauren Friese, a consultant and the founder of youth job site TalentEgg, who says the “money doesn’t matter” stereotype comes from anxiety about finding steady work: “In an interview, you’re not going to say, ‘Well, you pay a lot, and that is what’s most important to me.’” As with others before us, we millennials want a comfortable, living wage—something even killer office snacks can’t replace.

Do you hate the phone, or what?

Better question: Why do people who prefer talking on the phone hate telegrams so much? And what does everybody have against carrier pigeons? Sure, a recent Gallup poll found that people under 30 are much more likely to use their cellphones to text rather than to talk. (And landlines? Fuggedaboutit.) But this is just the next step in a long tradition of new technologies replacing the old. “[Phone calls] can be inconvenient; they require both parties to be free simultaneously,” reasons Jenna Wortham, a writer for New York Times Magazine who covers tech and digital culture. While the phone still works for longer conversations or pre-scheduled meetings, it’s just a time suck when you have to correspond with dozens of people a day. So it’s not the phone itself we dislike: It’s the inefficiency.

Just how much praise do you need?

Didn’t you mean to add, “You special snowflake”? Believe it or not, we young people aren’t all ego-mad compliment hoovers. Unlike salaries, sick days or hits on a viral video of a sneezing panda, validation isn’t something that can be empirically measured, but in a survey sponsored by IBM Institute for Business Value, 70% of millennials said they valued fairness and transparency at work more than recognition. So I asked Haley Mlotek, who worked with many young contributors as an editor at the Village Voice and The Hairpin, about the stereotype of the approval-seeking millennial. “I think millennials respond well to open, direct communication,” she says, adding that younger workers like to treat work as “an ongoing conversation.” That means a plenty of feedback of all sorts—not just kudos.

Can you fix our social media plan?

The same people who once criticized millennials for tweeting about our lunches (which none of us actually did, by the way) now get that hashtags are a big business: Some 73% of Canadians use social media. But there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy for managing this. “When brands first started joining social media, there was a trend for them to be on all platforms, doing everything, and a lot of really bad tweets and Facebook posts came from that idea,” says Brodie Lancaster, a senior editor at the Good Copy, who works with firms on their social media plan. Instead of haphazardly abusing Instagram hashtags (#yolo!), develop a real plan for enhancing your brand on a few select platforms. And, yes, dedicate someone to the job, but don’t automatically give it to the youngest person on your payroll.

Why won’t you stay put?

Have you ever tried to cobble together a stir-fry with whatever’s in your fridge? Building a career from scratch in an unstable economy is a bit like that. For we millennials—who stay at jobs for an average of just three years—holding multiple gigs while constantly seeking others is both appealing and necessary. For a business, high turnover gets expensive, quick, so if you have great young hires you want to keep, try to understand their situation. Allowing room for growth in your company will help, yes, but you should also accommodate their needs to pick up extra work. Take Daniel Reis, who holds down video-editing jobs at PBS and Criterion, for example. “Both give me a tremendous amount of trust and freedom,” he says. Since he gets no grief about his duelling gigs, his bosses get a happy (read: stable) employee.

Would it kill you to put on a suit?

Almost every visit with my baby boomer mom, bless her heart, begins with a once-over of my outfit, followed by an offer to take me to the Gap. Yet, like my peers, I’m always conscious about what I wear in a business setting. In fact, a LinkedIn survey showed that people under 35 were more likely than their older co-workers to dress up for work. So why does it seem that offices are more casual? Likely, it’s because you no longer need a drab grey suit to convey professionalism. “Businesses are diversifying from traditional corporate models, and spontaneity is becoming more valued,” says Estelle Tang, a culture editor at Elle, where (no surprise) people tend to notice one another’s clothes. “I can wear a onesie to work if it’s nice, clean and has no holes in it. It’s definitely not a bad thing, because I hate suits.”

Is do-goodism a deal breaker?

The phrase “social justice warrior” has become a pejorative, much as “PC culture” was mocked in the ’90s—as if over-earnest young people are the worst thing. (Hello, have you even read the news lately?) But we millennials aren’t just talk. Forbes estimates 75% of us prioritize socially responsible companies, both in our buying and working habits. And it’s really not enough for a firm to pay lip service to noble causes. “I often consider the composition of a company’s board and executive team to see if their espoused values truly reflect their reality,” says activist Jamia Wilson, the executive director at the non-profit Women, Action, & The Media. “I also read staff reviews to get a sense of work-life balance, pay equity and how people of colour and women are treated.” She’s not alone: We care, and we do our research.

Must you be besties with your boss?

I mean, ideally I would like to be BFFs with everyone at work, if only for all the killer parties. I’m not alone: A 2014 LinkedIn study found 67% of millennials—double the rate of our older counterparts—liked to share personal details with co-workers, including bosses. That openness led to better social relationships, which increased motivation and productivity. But just because we tend to over-share doesn’t mean we want to go for tacos every night with the person paying us. I talked to Jazmine Hughes, an editor at The New York Times Magazine with whom I’ve worked closely in the past, about where to draw the line. “What I am looking for,” she said, “is an older, unofficial sounding board and mentor who can provide me support and authority, but who isn’t directly in charge of my employment.”

Why the eff do you swear so much?

I’d like to pretend this question doesn’t apply to me, but the truth is that I’m one of the two-thirds of millennials who curse at work, according to a recent survey by software vendor Wrike. (In my defence, I usually save my really creative stuff for stubbed toes and spilled coffee.) Though the study linked the use of salty language to a certain level of comfort in the workplace, swearing can definitely be a problem if you’re going for professionalism—especially in public-facing jobs. My friend PJ Vogt co-hosts a podcast called Reply All, where his frequent swearing has been caught on record. He told me it took someone else drawing attention to the problem for him to temper his language. “My bosses were worried cursing would be a profound turnoff to our audience,” he says. “Now I try to be more thoughtful.”

How hip do you want us to be?

As baby boomers start their great career exodus, we millennials have become an integral part of the workforce. And still, no one knows what to do with us. According to a recent Deloitte study, 92% of executives feel they must redesign their organizations to appear more fun and engaging to younger talent, as if we’ll swoon if there’s a wild party thrown for us on our first day on the job. Don’t get us wrong: We’re absolutely all for a bit of the red-carpet treatment. But you know what we’d like better than a “cool” job? A stable one. “My friends and I have all pieced freelancing, contracts and part-time work together to make an imitation of a full-time job,” says Allison Sparling, who has worked in communications for multiple organizations. “I’m able to focus more on my work if I’m not distracted by worries about rent.”