Free Food Is Nice But Not Enough: The Key To Retaining Millennial (And All Other) Employees

Dan Lyons’ recent book about his misadventures at HubSpot describes the culture clash that ensued when Lyons, a 50-something journalist, tried working at a tech company staffed largely by 20-something Millennials. Looked at another way, though, the story is also about the lengths to which companies will go to keep Millennials from leaving their jobs.

Scene from Google’s Stockholm office from

The free food, ping pong tables, video games, social gatherings, and the alleged permissive work environment Lyons describes sounds like a continuation of college, which understandably would be effective at recruiting college grads. Other companies have deployed meatier strategies, as described in this Wall Street Journal article. It highlights programs that give junior staffers access to senior executives, job rotations, international stints and other, more substantial offerings companies provide to prevent Millennial talent drain.

In the aggregate, companies haven’t figured out how to increase Millennial job tenure. The same WSJ article reports, “Last year [2014], the median job tenure for workers aged 20 to 24 was shorter than 16 months. For those aged 25 to 34, it was three years, according to the BLS, still far short of the 5.5-year median tenure for all workers aged 25 and older.”

The media showers attention on employers as they try to crack the Millennial code, but there’s another group involved in fostering Millennial career development: Millennials themselves.

swingset conference table
Duffy London can sell you a conference table swing set.

There is one truism that has applied to every generation at work since the dawn of the Industrial Age: no one is more important to your career growth and trajectory than you are. A former manager of mine clarified the importance of that power when he gave me this timeless advice:

Take every job with an eye toward the story you will tell about it when you leave that job.

The elements of a compelling story include a protagonist (hopefully that person is you), a solid supporting cast (your co-workers), a challenge (e.g. the job description, your competition, a summary of the projects you tackle), and a resolution (resume-worthy outcomes). These ingredients exist all around us in the workplace, but sometimes we need to dig around to find them. After all, your boss can’t possibly generate every great idea worth investing in, and she won’t always think to assign those that do come to mind to you.

Employees of all ages, including Millennials, have to force the issue from time to time. They need to inventory their skills, identify and communicate their ambitions, seek managerial support, and make the plan to bring those ambitions to life.

Companies that consistently provide work that leads to compelling stories will do a better job of keeping their employees. When neither the employee or the employer has anything more to add to the story, then it’s probably a good time to part ways.

Looking at retention this way, I applaud companies that get creative in the way they source new challenges and opportunities for their people. It shows respect for all employees and what really drives their growth and retention. Free food and entertainment grab headlines in part because until about 10 years ago, very few offices would have ever considered them. They’re not meaningless, by the way. My current employer, Ampush, offers these benefits, and they add up. I’m grateful.

They just don’t count for as much as challenging projects and talented, hardworking, and engaging teammates.

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