How corporate America should adapt to millennials

August 20, 2014, 5:16 PM UTC
Group of coworkers discussing project in office
Photograph by Thomas Barwick—Getty Images

It seems like every day, we read another article about millennials and their impact on the U.S. workforce.

Lauren Stiller Rikleen, a Boston-area lawyer and author of multiple books about women in business, has turned her attention now to young people in the workplace, from teens through 30-somethings. Her newest book, You Raised Us, Now Work with Us, examines the role this generation has in corporate America and the challenges they face, as well as present, in the workplace.

Rikleen stopped by Fortune to discuss her new book as well as some concepts that come out of her work doing corporate training at the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership.

What follows is an edited transcript.

Fortune: The notion of ‘millennials’ spans such a wide range: usually those born between 1980 and 2000. Is it even a real thing, or is it an arbitrary label?

Lauren Rikleen: Some researchers use 1978. But yes, when you look at the research of what is considered the same generation, you really see huge differences. Nonetheless, it’s considered the same demographic or generation. I don’t know who creates those. But I do think that some of the changes this generation represents are real, and for two reasons: The work-life integration focus, that comes from global data. You look at data on millennials anywhere in the globe, pretty much, you’re going to see a work-life integration focus like you’ve never seen in the past in terms of what matters to them in the workplace. That’s a game changer, I think.

It is also the first generation coming into the workplace that is sorting out early in their career, with their significant others, whose career takes precedence.

That’s if they have a relationship, though. Part of the talk about millennials is that they are getting married much later, right?

Well, yes, previous generations went from adolescence right to adulthood, and now there’s this whole body of research around “emerging adulthood.” Millennials go from adolescent to emerging adult to adult because all the markers of independent adulthood are happening later: financial independence, getting married, having kids, leaving home, finishing school. It is all happening later for this generation.

Is this depressing, upsetting?

No, I think it’s just fine. It just is what it is. The question becomes: how should the workplace adapt? We [baby boomers] created a lot of the circumstances that we criticize millennials over. That’s part of my book, You Raised Us, Now Work With Us. We have to make changes in the workplace if we care about retention, and if we care about the growth and development of millennials as future leaders in the workplace.

What changes need to be made?

One of the biggest has to do with flexibility in the workplace. We have to start thinking about how work is done.

Are millennials more difficult?

Well, if you’re the first generation juggling dual careers and raising a family, how do you go about who’s going to take the kids to the doctor’s appointment, who’s going to go to the school play, who’s going to go to the field trip. So, thinking differently about remoteness, and remote work, is a part of flexibility. And being able to integrate it into the workplace is critically important for retention in leadership development.

So, it’s not just that the millennials need to figure out how to schedule and be flexible, but the workplace needs to cater to them in return?

Well, one thing that happened is that boomers lived life as younger people in a way that nobody ever saw, changing the world. Civil rights movement, women’s movement, fighting against the Vietnam War. Then, they got into the workplace and totally conformed. The boomers settled into their parent’s workplace. But that workplace doesn’t work anymore. For most of my generation, it’s still pretty much that the dad went to work, the mom stayed home, had a lower impact career. That’s just not the way it is. Totally gone.

So, the workplace has to change. Using technology as a tool and not a tether, for example. We’ve done a great job making technology a tether to the workplace. ‘Hey, you can take that Blackberry to the soccer game! Just don’t look at any of the plays, so I know that you’re doing work!’ That’s part of the whole lack of flexibility.

There are just so many differences, generationally, for millennials. They’re closer with their parents than any generation in the past. More reliant on them and more engaged with on a regular basis.

You said the workplace has to change. But has it already changed a little?

Up to a point. But certainly not enough. We’re still having these conversations about women and leaders, for example. We’re still counting firsts; the percentage of women on boards is still low, and women CEOs are still low.

Let’s talk more about that, about women in business. You’ve also written books about that.

Well, I’ve come to the conclusion that every single workplace should have training in unconscious bias and the implications of unconscious bias. How we evaluate people, how we provide opportunities. I’ve written two books on women’s success in the legal profession, I talk to women all over the country, and the factors that I hear for women leaving a job are never, ‘I left or cut back because of my family demands.’ It’s, ‘I defaulted to that because I was hitting a brick wall, and what is the point. I don’t get the same assignments as men of my same experience level. I don’t get invited to the same networking opportunities.’

We still struggle with our image of women as leaders. We still see a correlation between likeability and success: women who are more successful are less liked. How does that play out in the workplace for their opportunities? The barriers that women are facing now are just that much more subtle and pernicious, and we’re not doing enough training on how our unconscious minds work with people different than us. We have a long way to go.

Is the Sheryl Sandberg ‘lean in’ concept having a real effect?

I read her book and thought it was really good. She talks about unconscious bias. She has good research, footnotes and studies. The problem is, a lot of people talk about leaning in but have never read the book. They don’t understand what it means. So, now you hear senior people in the workplace using it as a weapon. Like, ‘she’s just not leaning in enough! She needs to lean in more.’

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that. And they haven’t read the book! Somehow, it becomes her problem. She’s not leaning in enough. Our joke in the Women’s Bar Association is that women are leaning in so far they’re in danger of toppling over.

So, her advice is fine, it’s just that the major concern I have is that I wish she would use her voice for workplace change.

Is there a “lean in” equivalent you espouse?

Mine is workplace change. What are the obstacles in the workplace for women, and people of color, to be able to succeed? Understand issues around unconscious bias, understand how your assignments can be fair and equitable.

So, you’re placing more of an onus on the workplace and corporate America, not women to change themselves.

Absolutely. I see examples, thousands since I wrote Ending the Gauntlet, of remarkably talented women who should by any measure be in a more senior position. In my profession, a woman associate and a male associate may be staffing the same case and a total difference happens in who’s getting the more interesting client exposure work. In law, women currently make up just 15% or 17% of the senior, equity partner positions. By 2000, women should have made up half of the partners already, based on how many women were coming out of law school in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. So, the pipeline is so clogged, it’s not moving.

Let’s marry the two concepts we’ve been discussing. Are female millennials more aggressive, in the right way, then women in the past?

One of the great opportunities for millennial women is that they’ve been able to go much longer in their lives without necessarily experiencing the same kind of discrimination. What a huge impact Title IX had. That was a sea change because it applied to sports, but it also had this greater dimension to it that impacts so much else. I think when you couple that with being raised with greater self-confidence, the plus side is not having seen the barriers, but the downside is that they’ll see the barriers as soon as they get married or start having kids. That’s where the rubber hits the road around people’s preconceived notions about what women in the workplace want. Rather than ask them what they want, they assume she wants to leave or travel. For women, their biology is a barrier.

To what extent is this whole effort still faced with dated biases from men? Is ‘feminism’ more of a loaded term than ever?

Somehow, that word has gotten hijacked. I’m not sure when or how or why, but now you can say to someone, ‘are you a feminist?’ And they’ll say, ‘oh, no!’ But then you ask, ‘do you believe in women having equal opportunity in the workplace?’ and they’ll respond, ‘well, of course!’ That word has been hijacked in our society. But we have to get around labels and focus on the issues.

You can always tell who buys into these topics. About millennials, for example, I recently had an older gentlemen say to me, ‘these generational differences are meaningless. We [boomers] were idealistic and active, too. And our kids, once they have to settle down and pay a mortgage, they’ll be just like us.’

Time will tell. We don’t know. But I wouldn’t want to be betting my workplace that the differences aren’t real.


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