How to coach and retain Millennial workers

A coach helped a hospitality group stabilise Millennial employee turnover and improve the relationships between managers and younger employees.
How to coach and retain Millennial workers

If your company’s staff turnover starts rising without any sign of slowing down, what would you do to alleviate the situation?

Here’s a case of how Catherine Wong, a consultant at Hong Kong-based Chorev Consulting, worked with a midsize hospitality group in Hong Kong to address turnover challenges that can affect small and large organisations.

According to Wong, the monthly turnover at the hospitality company was in the range of 5% to 10%. While the HR team was busy hiring replacements during a period of talent shortage for the entire industry, the churn rate continued to rise.

Many of the employees who quit were Millennials. For this hospitality company, addressing high turnover amongst Millennial employees is no longer optional as this generation was expected to form 50% of the global workforce by 2020, according to PwC. (In Hong Kong, Millennials formed 36% of the local workforce while Gen Xers were 35.4% of the workforce in 2018, according to Hong Kong’s Census and Statistics Department).

Aiming to stabilise turnover, the HR team sought to understand communication challenges between Millennial employees and their managers. Communication problems might come from the differing preferences of Millennials and older generations, Wong said.

“In general, Millennials expect managers to offer frequent, informal feedback and communication to be two-way and personalised,” she added. Wong found that many of the managers needed to be aware of the way they give feedback, which could be perceived as hypercritical and judgemental.

She also pointed out that Millennials need to feel appreciated. In The Deloitte Global Millennial Survey 2019 not feeling “appreciated” was a reason cited by 23% of respondents who planned to leave their current organisations in the next two years. While the need for appreciation is a basic human need regardless of generation, Millennials and Generation Z, compared to former generations, grew up with technology that gives access to instant feedback. “Likes” on a social media post or comments on an online article happen within minutes, nurturing an expectation for instant feedback in other spheres of life.

Here are some things Wong did to help the hospitality company:

Teach new ways to give feedback. After discussions with the HR team, Wong came up with a plan for a workshop to train managers on how to provide Millennials with feedback and how to coach them.

She defined coaching as a goal-oriented method that identifies and develops people’s strengths and drives personal growth through observation, feedback, and good questions.

“As we tried to change the managers’ behaviours when it comes to communication and feedback, coaching was relevant because of its goal-oriented nature — the new behaviours are the goals,” she said.

The behavioural changes required of the group’s managers involved the following: Instead of giving just negative feedback, they needed to provide positive reflections when things were done well. Constructive feedback was appropriate when staffers’ performance was not up to par, Wong pointed out.

Conduct scenario-based role-play. To help the managers learn how to give feedback, Wong divided them into two groups and created scenario-based role-play training based on their reported problems with Millennials.

“When the managers played the supervisory roles, the actors we brought to the training became their Millennial staffers,” Wong said. “After each scenario was done, the actors told the supervisors how they felt as their subordinates.”

In other scenarios, the actors imitated the managers’ communication and feedback style while the real managers became subordinates.

After they completed each scenario, the “subordinates” shared how they felt when listening to feedback from the actors who imitated their communication style.

“Some managers who previously wondered why Millennials didn’t listen to them started to understand their feelings after role-play,” she said.

Train managers to coach. The managers also learned coaching skills to improve their connection with Millennial employees.

Coaching skills help managers build trust and true connection with Millennials because coaching involves a lot of personalised, two-way communication, Wong said, adding that it requires a manager to believe in an employee’s strengths and take an interest in his or her development.

When trust and connection are built, managers can be more effective in engaging and motivating Millennial staffers through honest feedback and conversations, she added.

It is also easier to retain Millennials when trust and personal relationships exist between them and their managers, according to Wong. “While people from different generations prefer having good relationships with managers, Millennials thrive on it. They have much higher job satisfaction and commitment to organisations when having good personal relationships with supervisors,” she said.

In the case of the hospitality group, its HR team reported a stabilised staff turnover three to four months after the training, she said.

After learning coaching skills, managers must also be held accountable for their teams’ turnover, Wong advised. “If turnover is included in performance metrics for managers, it would help organisations in terms of retention,” she said.

Further tips on coaching Millennials

While not every company has a budget to send employees to coaching training, Wong said managers can apply the following coaching skills in their daily interactions with Millennials.

Give helpful feedback

Managers need to give specific positive comments to staffers who did something well and constructive feedback when staffers need to make an improvement. Here are examples of what to do and what not to do when it comes to feedback:

Specific positive feedback: “I appreciate your proactive effort in completing this report. Thank you for being proactive.”

Nonspecific positive feedback: “Well done” or “Good job”.

When delivering constructive feedback, include the impact of an employee’s action or the lack of action:

Specific constructive feedback: “There is no data in this section of the report to support our suggestions. As a result, people may not understand why the suggestions are important.”

Nonspecific and negative feedback: “This is a bad report.”

Wong also advised managers to stop using phrases such as “this is good but …” because Millennial employees may not feel appreciated when hearing that.

Listen and have an open mind

When speaking to Millennial staffers, managers should listen to them and withhold judgements. “Managers have to communicate their standards with Millennials and ask how they’ll meet those standards,” Wong noted.

While Millennials might have ways of meeting those standards that supervisors never expect, managers need to stay open-minded and let younger staffers try, she said.

But what if Millennial employees do not end up meeting managers’ standards? According to Wong, managers must still hold them accountable by pointing out that their ways did not work and asking how they will ensure success in their second attempts.

Ask questions without judgement

When a Millennial employee struggles with a problem, a manager can ask curious, nonjudgemental questions to help instead of criticising.

Wong gave the following example to illustrate:

A curious, nonjudgemental question: “I notice you’ve done this task in the same way for some months. May I know why?”

A judgemental comment: “It’s a sign of laziness when you do the same thing the same way though it never works.”

After managers ask the question, they must listen, because it’ll help them find out the underlying problems, said Wong, adding that managers need to refrain from making judgemental comments that prevent them from finding a solution to a problem.

Be realistic with limits of coaching

While managers’ coaching can help improve relationships and retention, Wong pointed out that coaching is not a panacea.

“If a fatter paycheque is what a particular Millennial employee wants and that’s what you can’t offer him or her, there’s not much you can do to retain the person," she said.

However, if skill development is something Millennial employees desire, there is something to be done. For organisations where Millennial employee retention is a concern, Wong suggests investing in programmes to advance their skills to meet their future career needs.

Teresa Leung is a freelance writer based in Hong Kong. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Alexis See Tho, an FM magazine associate editor, at