Why there’s conflict between millennials, bosses and older workers.

By Robyn Rime

Millennials, say the pundits, are entitled brats. They are spoiled and overconfident. As employees, they expect rapid promotions and flagrant personal accommodations. Conventional wisdom and professional literature both predict that Millennials — those born between 1981 and 1996 — would be a nightmare to work with, and there’s evidence that some employers “hire around” the age group in an attempt to avoid intergenerational conflict in the workplace.

The pundits have only half the story, says Avan Jassawalla, professor of management in Geneseo’s School of Business. In a study published by the International Journal of Conflict Management in 2017, she confirmed that Millennials create intergenerational conflict in workplaces, but the causes aren’t what the pundits — or the employers — expect.

“Millennials were not complaining because their boss didn’t allow them flexible work hours or refused to let them work from home or didn’t give them a promotion,” says Jassawalla. Instead, according to the data she’s collected, Millennial workplace conflicts are caused primarily by two things: “My older manager’s unfair or unethical actions, and my older manager not taking my views into account.” It turns out fairness is a very big issue for Millennials, and they want to be listened to.

These issues aren’t unique to Millennials, of course, but their reaction to them is. Compared to other generations, “Millennials have low value for maintaining the distance between people of different levels of authority,” says Jassawalla. “When you think of people in lower-power positions — like an employee versus a boss — you assume that person would either avoid conflict or accommodate it, either say nothing or give in.”

Instead, Millennials choose to confront their bosses — and that creates conflict with older supervisors. Jassawalla’s study indicates supervisors often assume they “need to send these spoiled kids a message that they must pay their dues,” an action that aggravates a Millennial’s sense of unfairness, which in turn creates additional conflict.

Confronting their supervisors doesn’t always end positively for Millennials. “In many cases, they ended up not getting what they wanted, leaving them the options of spoiling the relationship or quitting the job,” Jassawalla says. “But when asked, a majority of them said they would stand up for themselves again.”

Workers who will leave an organization that doesn’t meet their value requirements present employers with real retention issues, says Denise Reed Lamoreaux ’84, P’11. As global chief diversity officer for the multinational information technology company Atos, Lamoreaux knows first-hand how critical it is for employees to feel that they fit in. “If an employee doesn’t find a generational match with a co-worker within six months, they’ll leave an organization within a year,” she explains.

Faced with assertive Millennial employees who demand fair treatment and flat management, can an organization choose to wait out the troubling demographic phenomenon?

Jassawalla says no. “The sheer number of Millennials makes them different,” she points out. “This year, they will be 40 percent of the workplace, and by 2025 they will be the majority.”

“Leaders cannot tune out generational noise,” agrees Lamoreaux. “This is the way of work moving forward.”

Both agree that resolving intergenerational workplace conflict is a two-way street, and the best first step is recognizing that multiple perspectives can help create good outcomes for an organization. “Employers also need to take responsibility for creating a set of expectations that lead Millennials to be more aggressive,” says Jassawalla. “They need to ask, Are my actions fair? Am I taking their ideas into account, or did I just dismiss them out of hand?”

They may sometimes act like entitled brats, she concludes, but “Millennials have a lot of courage. It’s not easy for a lower-level employee to stand up to the boss and fight for what they believe in.”