You can say what you like about the millennials who are now, with the resurgent economy, trickling into the workplace for their first “real” jobs. (And I do.) But they have this going for them: They are unfailingly, unflaggingly polite. They have such good manners, in fact, that I sometimes find myself stymied in dealing with them. If I send one a request—asking, say, for information for a photo caption—said millennial will email me back the requested information with a cheery smiley face emoticon at the end of the message (and not at all meant ironically). When I email back a brief “Thanks,” I get an equally cheery “You’re welcome!” or “No worries!!” or “My pleasure!!!,” which all seem like one more step in the email chain than is really necessary. For a generation that’s supposed to be savaging one another on Facebook, I find these kids exceedingly nice.
Still, I was taken aback to read this Wall Street Journal article about the steps companies these days are taking to be sure this new generation is happy in the new jobs they’re reporting for. If you’ve dropped a child off to college anytime within the past, oh, six or seven years, these steps will have a familiar ring. When our family rolled up to our youngest child’s dorm at his twee-as-all-hell liberal arts college a few years back, the road was lined with enrollees with signs and face paint and beads and matching t-shirts, all jumping up and down and screaming like bloody banshees to show him how welcome he was. That kicked off an entire week of games and rock-wall climbs and scavenger hunts and assemblies and residence-hall parties, all meant to ensure that he landed as gently as possible in his scary new $50,000-a-year Shangri-la.
Guess what’s trickled over into the workplace?
That’s right. Not content to show new hires to their cubicles and pass along the key code to the restroom, companies these days are taking great care with what the WSJ terms “onboarding,” a.k.a. “the process of absorbing new hires and getting them up to speed.” The goal—of course—is to have onboarding be more “fun.”
If the first day at your workplace begins with a daunting stack of paperwork to be filled out—you’re doing it wrong! Millennials don’t find stacks of paperwork fun. And if you’re talking about your company’s mission and values? Also not fun. Millennials would much rather talk about themselves. Wait—let Francesca Gino, an associate professor at Harvard Business School who’s studied onboarding, explain: “When we can stress the personal identity of people, and let them bring more of themselves at work, they are more satisfied with their job and have better performance,” she says. One company mentioned in the article gives new employees sweatshirts emblazoned, not with the firm’s name, but with the individual employee’s. You know. So they’ll feel special. Another firm has a four-day orientation that includes “games, skits, costumes, thumping music and a limbo bar,” according to its “manager of onboarding.” A third company sends new hires on a weeklong scavenger hunt. Anything, it seems, that cushions the tough real-world landing, they’ll do.
Why the coddling? To make new hires happier, in hopes they’ll stay with the company longer. All things considered, you’d think they’d be damned happy just to have a job. But as David Earle, chief executive of Staffing.org, a “workplace research and advisory company,” so perspicaciously told the Journal, the initial weeks at work are “the first time the employee has the ability to look at the job from the inside.” So even if the jobs millennials been hired for are soulless and boring, their first few days shouldn’t be!
I don’t know. Personally, if my first few days at a new job consisted of costumed skits and the limbo and the subsequent days of sitting in a cubicle doing data entry, I’d feel like I’d been snookered. I hate team-building and corporate volleyball games; to me, work is work. It’s not supposed to be fun. When it turns out to be—and in our office, it does, rather frequently—that’s a bonus. It’s not what I get there in the morning expecting, though. It’s not the norm.
But I’m out of step with the times, clearly. Is it because the world has gotten more scary, post 9/11, that young people need help with what used to be a “toss them in the pool and see if they can swim” transition? Or is taking special care to see that they’re settled in just … being nice? They’ve got me emailing them back, these young folk: “No worries!” “You’re welcome!!!” Like the skits and games, it seems harmless, but a little silly. Grown-ups should arrive at work expecting to act like grown-ups, not like campers at a jamboree.