Millennials are set to become the future leaders of business and people. Is HR ensuring they’re doing enough to attract and engage them? is taking on the challenge…
Millennials, born between 1981 to 1996, have attracted, in part, a bad reputation. Labelled by some as a generation of ‘snowflakes’ – a phrase which roughly denotes those who believe they are entitled to special treatment; the British Army even used the word in its recruitment campaign to catch the attention of this supposedly easily-offended generation – they are a demographic that managed to rile Good Morning Britain’s Piers Morgan, a man who believes Millennials are a ‘softer’ cohort than his grandparents’ generation.
I think the Millennial generation is way too keen to take offence & to blame 'illness' for everything. They need to toughen up. https://t.co/IC9HKfOPGP— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) May 7, 2017
This constant negative profiling of an entire group raises an important question: why are so many people, including celebrities like Morgan, agitated by these young people (some of whom are almost 40)? In part, could it be because they are perceived to have a changed approach to life and work and are questioning how so many things have gone before? Regards work, this might be true. Anecdotal evidence suggests Millennials are more willing to question, and have an opinion on, how ethical their business is with 2018 Deloitte research finding that the majority of UK Millennials don’t think that their employer is ethical whilst a wider majority across the world agree with the statement that businesses “have no ambition beyond wanting to make money”.
This ‘unethical’ state of play doesn’t appear to be what Millennials want. A 2019 study by American Express found that 62% of Millennials said that it’s important for them to be known for making a positive difference in the world, and 75% said that it’s vital that the values of the business they work for match their own. These findings may suggest why this group has irked their older counterparts; as a result of this generation’s opinions and wants employers are actively starting to alter their brand, purpose and ethics in order to attract and engage these workers which is changing the way older cohorts work.
Yet, despite difficulties, businesses know they must change to get Millennial talent; they are about to become the most populous workforce demographic - by 2020 - after all. To attract – and then retain, develop, and engage – this cohort, HR has a central role. One business who understand this is the global lifestyle retail company Urban Outfitters Inc. To discuss how the Millennial mindset has forced the high-street stalwart to take a look at its own employer branding proposition, D&I strategy and engagement tactics, in order to align it with the needs and values this important workforce generation, HR Grapevine met for an exclusive interview with Emily Lofting-Kisakye, HR Director, Europe of Urban Outfitters Inc, at the company’s London office.
Emily was upfront about how the new generation was forcing Urban Outfitters to change its approach to how they work. “The newer generations force us to think differently about how we work, what a work-life balance looks like and what flexibility look like,” Emily explains. She also doesn’t buy into the stereotypes. “The negative narrative of Millennials not being loyal or that their expectations are too high; I don’t find any of that to be true. Their expectation is that you can help them maintain a work-life balance, you will look after their mental health and wellbeing, you will help them to develop in the way they want, and they are very happy to help you understand their narrative and say ‘no, I don’t think that’s right’.
What we can take from that as HR professionals is, if we can harness that message from them and understand what they’re saying we can actually deliver something back that’s pretty evolutionary and amazing.
They’re the future leaders. That change is coming whether you want to be within it or not, so for us we just try and absolutely embrace that
To get the best out of this generation, Emily believes every organisation needs to ensure they are building their people strategies to reflect what their workers are now more concerned about. She notes that younger generations are no longer discussing topics such as pensions and private healthcare, things that the older generations would have, and are instead talking about where a business is with its sustainability targets, how it enforces better Diversity & Inclusion(D&I) measures and what training is available. Recent Robert Walters’ stats, from the whitepaper Attracting and Retaining Millennial Professionals, show Millennial appetite for continual learning whilst a 2017 KPMG report found that this group overwhelmingly wants their employer to be socially minded.
Emily believes it is crucial employers keep these demands in mind to ensure that they manage to keep attrition rates down and keep them around for long enough to develop into leaders. “They’re the future leaders. That [mindset] change is coming whether you want to be within it or not, so for us we just try and absolutely embrace that,” she adds. Yet this doesn’t mean ignoring what older workers want. In fact, Urban Outfitters is developing intergenerational communication channels within its employee base which ensures the workforce initiatives are truly age diverse, that the chain remains inclusive, and branding and ethics programmes are informed by a wide range of employee views.
“URBN is a portfolio of global consumer brands comprised of Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, Free People, BHLDN, Terrain and the Vetri Family. In Europe Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie and Free People have store and online presence along with a multichannel office based in London; BHLDN ships globally, and within those we have a high percentage of the employee base who is Millennial and below. But then you have a high percentage of our leaders that are not Millennial and haven’t grown up in their careers through that way. So, our joined focus in terms of Millennials and retention is to understand the multigenerational workforce – it’s the first time it’s really been as palpable as it is now. We need to look at how they connect with those generations and how they can get their narrative across properly,” she explains.
URBN is the shared service division which compromises many brands
It boasts 3000 employees
Operates in 10 countries through EU and the Middle East
Multi-billion global business turnover
As part of this Millennial-minded branding and operational tack, Emily has ensured that a key part of Urban Outfitters’ people strategy heavily focuses on D&I. The US-headquartered chain is in the first year of a three-year strategy, where the business is set to focus on education, positive action methods, leadership commitment and candidate attraction. Building on each of these key points, Emily hopes they will better develop Urban Outfitters’ D&I plans, while also boosting the profile and reputation of the business, which will of course lead to attracting and retaining Millennials who are conscious about the message and purpose a brand emanates. “The big thing everybody is agreed on as an action point is to make sure that from a brand and user perspective it’s really inclusive and everyone knows what we are working towards in that each individual brand,” she explains.
Emily also points to why having a purpose that not only resonates with its employees, but its customer base too, is crucial for any business. For example, as Urban Outfitters’ customer base is mainly young adults, such as Millennials, ensuring the business is as diverse as possible from the ‘inside out’ will ensure it continues to attract its diverse mix of customers. “For us if you look at our customers, they are incredibly diverse so we should be from the inside out – we should be diverse,” she adds.
Diversity and inclusion incorporates many forms, from gender and race to sexuality, all of which require an employer’s full focus. Therefore, HR has a duty to ensure a workplace is as diverse and inclusive wherever possible, so that every individual feels represented in a working environment.
Thankfully times are changing, as research by Michael Page has found that 48% of UK employees are women, compared to 40% in the 1970s.
Meanwhile, Gov.uk shared in 2018 that between 2004 and 2018, the employment rate increased in every ethnic group, particularly in the combined Pakistani and Bangladeshi ethnic group, where the employment rate went up from 44% to 57%.
In addition, the National LGBT Survey carried out by Gov.uk in 2018 discovered that 80% of respondents aged 16 to 64 had been in employment at some point in the 12 months preceding the survey.
Emily is confident that Urban Outfitters will be able to measure the success of its strategies – from D&I, to branding, and better communication. She believes that focus groups and surveys will allow her 22-strong HR team to pinpoint exactly what is and isn’t working whilst also helping to improve Millennial engagement. “We hold regular focus groups and we have yearly engagement surveys, which we’re about to finish, so we will see and hear a lot through that in terms of if we feel that journey is in the right place,” she shares. “Most of those things have a link through to D&I and all of those things have a link to engagement and engagement is really the epicentre of everything I do. Everything we think about from a strategic perspective all centres back into engagement of people.”
With engagement a central facet of current HR thinking around productivity, profitability and solvency, Emily hopes by making engagement a core part of Urban Outfitters’ people strategy they won’t suffer the consequences of disengaged employees. “We want to provide the best tools we can to our employee base to empower them, but also for them to feel happy when they’re at work, wherever they are in the lifecycle of their employment with us,” she continues. “We really want to make sure we’re providing this environment that inspires them and that they’re happy, because that is ultimately going to lead to greater engagement of people and succession.”
The newer generations force us to think differently about how we work, what a work/life balance looks like and what flexibility look like.
51% of Millennials believe the number one priority for their business is generating profits.
Nearly 80% of Millennials look for people and culture fit with employers, followed by career potential.
With so much going on, Emily tells me that she isn’t going to rest on her laurels. She believes more can always be done to ensure that Urban Outfitters are working for Millennials so the business can benefit too. “We can always do more. I think when we try and put strategies and actions together, it’s really important we keep it as simple as possible so people can engage in it,” she says. With this in mind, she hopes the changes Urban Outfitters are implementing now – better employer branding efforts, improving D&I and inclusivity, and working to train, engage and retain this Millennial cohort - will become such an intrinsic part of Urban Outfitters’ culture that it will become an unspoken given. This is especially important around D&I, she tells me.
In fact, with these D&I-minded and ethnics-conscious Millennials set to become the future leaders, it appears that businesses might, as Emily lays out, have this mindset naturally ingrained. Until then it will require hard work and mindful effort. “If we can think about D&I from a people perspective and we can keep the narrative alive, it will become natural, but we all have to drive the journey and the narrative for that to happen,” she advises. Only then, in Emily’s thinking, will it become set in stone. Well, until Generation Z come along and change everything again that is.