Trying to keep young employees from quitting? It’s not about money.

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When young people talk about wanting faster promotions or higher salaries, it’s a red herring. What young people really want at work is opportunity for personal growth, but they’re scared that you won’t be able to give that to them, so they ask for a promotion instead. The problem is that a title change and four percent raise are not going to matter much to the twentysomething who is not planning to climb your corporate ladder anyway.

What will matter? Here are some ideas to consider:

1. Offer good projects.
It’s not that young people won’t do bottom-rung work. They will. Every twenty-two year old understands that someone has to operate the copy machine. The important thing is that this should not be the whole job. One hour a day of getting coffee is fine if the rest of the day is spent writing feature articles for Vogue. Today the workplace is transactional. There are not long-term promises, there is, What can you do for me today? Tell the young worker what you need done, right now, and tell him or her what growth opportunity you will offer in exchange, right now. We all know that jobs are not long-term engagements anymore, so don’t make the promise of interesting work based on a long-term stay.

2. Flexible hours.
When managers institute a policy for measuring work completed rather than hours at the office, employee turnover decreases by more than 50%. Younger workers are the most indignant when it comes to being required to work 9-5 every day. So instituting flexible hours will have the most impact on this group of employees. Don’t be shy about countering a request for a raise with an offer for flexible work days. In poll after poll young workers say flexibility is more important in a job than money, and if you are in doubt that this applies to your own employees, use employee survey companies to find out.

3. Training.
The average salary increase is four percent. Even if it were double that, you are not going to change anyone’s life with that raise, and they know it. But training and building a new skill set can change someone’s career by opening new doors. So find out what sort of skills your employees are looking to build and help them with that education. Also, keep in mind that training doesn’t have to cost your company a cent. Young people place enormous value on mentoring. They want constant feedback. Offer structured, constant feedback in place of salary increases and promotions. If the mentoring is good, the lack of promotion won’t be a sticking point.

4. Intrapraneurship opportunities.
If you ask young people what their dream job is, most will say entrepreneurship. But most don’t have any idea what sort of company they might start. So, in the mean time, while they’re dreaming up company ideas, they need corporate jobs. You can endear yourself to your young employees by giving them intrapraneurship opportunities – these are startup situations within a larger company that give participants training for when they want to start their own company. You can also help a young person to engage in work by explaining why a given skill will be essential to their future as an entrepreneur. In one of the great ironies of the new generation, if you teach someone skills to run their own company, they are more likely to stay longer at your company.

5. Offer Office Perks
More than ever, younger employees are incentivized and motivated by their office environment. This includes positive relationships with fellow employees, feelings of teamwork and encouragement, and free snacks and beverages. Offering a modern break room with quality, healthy snacks and office coffee services, as well as facilitating positive team interactions are great ways to create a rewarding office environment.

I’m curious to hear from readers. In a workplace where people switch jobs all the time, what are other things that make you stay in a job?

39 replies
  1. OHK
    OHK says:

    Mentorship. I think this is touched on in your post, but I’d emphasize it even more. If a young employee feels like her employer is invested in her career, then she’s more likely to stick around. This investment can range from the practical (sitting down and explicitly showing the employee how to do something, giving useful feedback after a project) to the more abstract (giving thoughtful regular reviews, taking the employee to lunch a couple of time a year to check in). As you’ve mentioned in previous posts, young workers are going from an environment (school) where they were constantly told what to do and how to do it. While young employees certainly need to learn to take initiative and not be motivated solely by others’ feedback, the fact is that they still would benefit (and perhaps more importantly, feel as if they were benefitting) from getting that feedback. Though I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve yet to have a good mentor. While I don’t think my career has been “damaged” by the lack, I think that I would have felt much more loyal to employers who had simply taken a bit more time to tell me what I was doing well and what I was doing not-so-well. I think this is particularly important in “creative” jobs where there is no clear benchmark for whether or not you’re performing as you should be.

  2. AJH
    AJH says:

    Respect. I have stayed longer than I should have in boring, menial jobs where my supervisor respected me, my opinions, and especially my work style. I may not have as much experience as they do, but they respected that I have good ideas and just might have a way to do a project better or quicker. I come into a job with respect for my managers and the company, but when it isn’t reciprocated, I start looking for somewhere else where I might be respected especially if the position is unchallenging, underpaid, and offering me no skills that I can build on.

  3. Annemieke
    Annemieke says:

    Insight. Being “in the know” or even consulted prior to decision-making makes employees feel valued and trusted. The added bonus is that you get a sneak peek inside your boss’s brain (or even further up the ladder) to see what makes her tick. Having insight into how decisions are made further your chances of being successful at future proposals.

  4. Norcross
    Norcross says:

    Being a “part of”. I stayed at a position in my company with a manaical, often times bi-polar boss, because I was informed of the department goals and was able to influence strategies. Many times, people in my generation (mid 20’s) have been raised doing group projects in school, and everything having a democratic process. While this isn’t the real world, it’s often times a shock to recent college grads to find out that their boss really doesn’t care what they think.

  5. Jacqui
    Jacqui says:


    Thank you for writing such an accurate post when most others seem to be misconstruing our motivations and intentions.

    In response to your question, I second all the things said above. I want to be respected in a job. I know that I don’t know as much as some twice my age, but I do know some things (including some things my elders don’t), so respect my contribution.

    I want to be challenged. As you said, I, too, will make copies for an hour as long as I have something meanful to work on later that I can look foward to.

    And I certainly want flexibility. I’m wildly against putting in face time. I’m not against working hard and giving my employer a fair trade for my paycheck, but when I continually ask for more work with no return, surfing the net to make it til 5 seems pretty pointless, no matter how old you are.

  6. Rebecca
    Rebecca says:

    You hit the nail on the head. Other key things:
    – Update your image. The letterhead from – €˜99 won't cut it when I just created the logo for my pet organization. And remember to do good things and share the stories with me. When I'm passionate about an organization, it is an extension of my personality and I will share my enthusiasm with my friends. But only if I feel the image suits me.
    – Have the right tools. I don't want to work on an outdated database when I am a software guru. Be organized and don't blame it on administration issues.
    – Don't limit projects to my job title. My skills are vast and varied and I'd like a chance to use them all. Just because I'm in financial development doesn't mean I'm not fabulous at marketing and design. Millenials like using both sides of the brain.
    – Frequent free food. Pretzels. Fruit. Peanut Butter. Whatever. Everyone likes free food. Everyone.

  7. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    Great post and comments on the more human inter-active aspects of employee retention. There are a few others that seem to be important.

    I’ve had two twenty-something friends tell me they’d rather be near a window than have a private office, and that it was a factor in changing companies (going from a private interior office to an open-area workspace by a window). It’s well documented that people are more productive working in natural light, so this makes sense — most people want to be and feel productive.

    The company office location:
    Recently either Google or Yahoo (can’t remember which) opened a branch office in downtown San Francisco to give employees another workplace option. Electronic Arts in Vancouver opened a downtown “branch” studio (in addition to their giant production studio in a nearby suburb) in part to keep key employees.

    On-site recreation:
    Google and other tech firms are famous for offering video game rooms, climbing walls, etc. I’m somewhat more sceptical of the retention power of these amenities — but maybe I’m just getting old ;-)

  8. Brian Johnson
    Brian Johnson says:

    Worthwhile company goals. Altruism is alive and well with young workers and we want to feel like we’re making a difference in the world. It’s going to be difficult to keep young talent if your company runs a gambling website or scares seniors into buying insurance they don’t need. But you don’t need to be serving meals to starving children in Zambia either. If management is sincere about the philosophcial mission of the organization (beyond making money) and communicates the value that company offers (whether it’s making shoelaces or stem cells), it will be easier to get buy-in from employees at all levels and lead to a greater sense of teamwork.

  9. Amanda
    Amanda says:

    I recently changed jobs primarily because of frustration with, among other things, lack of clear communication. I had a very hard time understanding the basis for evaluation of my work and what I was doing right and wrong.

    Thanks for this, though, many of the previously listed ideas are included in my “among other things”.

  10. Sophie
    Sophie says:

    I’ve quit a job for being left on a good project for too long. What was a once great project in the beginning became very stale for me two years later. They would not reassign me because of the complexity of the project, lack of resources, blah, blah, blah. So I found a new job.

  11. Stephanie Sheaffer
    Stephanie Sheaffer says:

    I completely agree with your assessment of what twenty-somethings value.

    I especially relate to the desire for mentoring and training. I want to attend conferences, to go back to school, to join organizations in my career field. And I also would like some good, old-fashioned mentoring- a cup of coffee with the CEO, a Q & A session with company leaders, etc.

    Here are a few other things that would buy my loyalty:

    Family-Friendly Amenities. Ex. Bring your baby to work with you for the first six months. Money for take-out dinners for the first two weeks after childbirth (Yes, Google actually does offer this benefit). Excellent maternity and paternity leave packages. Flexible hours and work options.

    Little Extras. On-site gym. Workplace walking program. Free food.

    A Really Good Boss. Someone who is creative, authentic, and permission-granting. Someone who is approachable and a good communicator. Someone who is willing to show me the ropes (here’s the mentoring thing popping up again…).

  12. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    I read this post and kept nodding my head. Recently I was actually fired from a position because of a couple points you make. I am an ambitions young IT professional, looking to put his smarts to work. Instead I was blackballed by some older colleagues who not to lend a hand or an olive branch, assigned me work better suited for a monkey, or a HS intern.

    I resented their directives, and yet performed the work. After 7-8 months of this, I began to ask my boss, “hey, i’m done with this stuff, can I have some more interesting work?” Therein lied the beginning of my demise. I was seen as ungrateful, over ambitions, and biting off more than I can chew. My boss did not know what to do with me, and I was summarily fired because, at least in my eyes, I kept asking for more work and was never happy with what they gave me.

    How are bosses supposed to handle charges who ask for more? Should I have just heeded their advice, and sat down, shut up, and done my work like a good little worker bee? I’ll be honest, by the end, I was relieved that I was done. It just turned out not to be a good fit, and now I have a much better idea of what I am looking for out of an employer.


  13. David Harper
    David Harper says:

    In a prior life as a consultant, we developed a ‘rewards of work’ based on massive survey of employees (without regard to demographic, i think, so not necessarily about youngsters).

    We found (1) when joining, on being recruited into a company, people tend to prioritize compensation. But (2) once there, the “drivers of retention and motivation” are different, consistent with your post. We called the rewards: compensation, benefits, affiliation (who do i work with, where, what’s our brand, are we hip), work content (e.g., cool work, skillful work) and career prospects.

    Consistently, the #1 reason people gave for exiting a firm was: a bad manager. After that, as i recall, work content. So a sure way to push somebody out is give them a lame boss and spirit-zapping work.

  14. OHK
    OHK says:

    Just want to add in that the family-friendly amenities thing is indeed important, especially as I am now at the end of my twenties and starting a family. My workplace is so _not_ family friendly that I plan to quit a few months after I get pregnant — with the hope that that will give me some time to re-establish my freelance career. The sad thing is that at my company, everyone (female that is) who has a baby leaves and never comes back, and yet the company doesn’t do anything to change. The result is, in my opinion, a detrimental brain drain.

    I interned awhile back at a company that was the exact opposite — generous maternity leave, nursing/pumping rooms, onsite daycare. And their retention rate was incredibly high.

  15. junger
    junger says:

    As a 23-year-old who has made his way up pretty quickly (2 promotions in 2 years), the thing that bothers me most about working in a company is dealing with unqualified co-workers.

    Part of me knows that it’s me not having the experience and reality of working with … co-workers … but it’s a shame, nevertheless.

  16. Leslie M-B
    Leslie M-B says:

    Flexible hours: By this I don’t mean “let me work any 40 hours.” I mean: trust me to get the work done in an effective and efficient way. If I can do better in 25 hours what takes someone else 40 hours, please don’t make me sit in the office those extra 15 hours. Yes, I’ll use that time to start my own work projects, but I’ll resent having to be in the office doing work well above and beyond the call of duty. Set me free!

    Nice digs: I’m currently working in a shared bullpen near a team of video production folks, so there’s little light beyond a single fluorescent tube overhead. It’s driving me crazy, but there’s nowhere for me to move for the time being. And I’ve worked in far worse settings.

    Equitable pay: Ever worked at a newspaper? As a reporter in Southern California in 1999, I made $22,000/year. I get that I’m supposed to start at the bottom, but when I discover the people who sell classified and display ads make six figures, I’m going to feel disgruntled, especially since the more ads they sell, the more they get paid. Even the graphics guys got a bonus for having to create extra pages. But the reporters? We had to write extra stories for no extra pay. I totally get that bringing in money for a company means you’ll get a higher salary, but come on. . . If employers think employees aren’t swapping salary info in such a workplace, they’re delusional.

    I guess I most want quality of life (location, hours) and respect (personal recognition, equitable pay). I thought earning a Ph.D. would allow me such “perks” if I continued to work in an academic environment. That, however, is not always the case.

  17. Bally
    Bally says:

    Very insightful post. It is right on the money & opened my eyes to a couple of issues I hadn’t really appreciated before.

    I have been working 10 years and am not in my 20’s anymore. In those 10 years I have changed jobs three times so it is more like serial monogamy than one-night stands.

    Each time I have changed jobs I have been struck by two things:

    One, how much more productive I was on projects that gave me the freedom to work on things that interested and engaged me. I wasn’t just more productive with respect to the interesting and engaging tasks but also with the boring stuff that has to get done.

    Two, how important company culture is to how happy you feel and how likely you are to stay. When you ‘fit in’ you can produce much more and at a higher standard because you intrinsically understand the inner workings of the company. Consequently, you are not spending time trying to figure out how to achieve things and you spend time on actually achieving them. During the boring times you are happier because you are surrounded by like-minded souls and during the interesting times you are energized for the same reason.

    I think company culture is ultimately the most important factor because it plays in to all the other things you've mentioned.

  18. Greg
    Greg says:

    What I find fascinating about the post is how timeless the concepts are. When reading about successful leaders, implementation of these concepts helped attract, develop, and retain the best.

    Offer good projects (make the work challenging)
    Flexible hours (accountability)
    Training (room to learn, fail, and succeed)
    Intrapraneurship (teach them their bosses' job; let them learn how and why everything works together)

  19. MarilynJean
    MarilynJean says:

    Yes, yes, and yes! Flexible schedules, learning opporunities, being heard AND respected. They seem like simple concepts to us, but those in decision-making positions think otherwise.

    I would choose all of these factors over a pay raise. I work at a nonprofit that actually gives cash bonuses if we reach our goals. And while the cash is great, chances are it will be gone as fast as I saw it. But if my boss said, “Pick your schedule and here is a leadership training program I want you to participate in”, I would pick that over the cash–no matter how many bills I have.

    I trust Penelope (and others) when they say the workplace is changing. I will continue to be patient and search for the right workplace that values what younger employees can bring to the table.

  20. Dave
    Dave says:

    I’m 40. I stayed at my last job for nearly 5 years because I could not afford to quit without another job that paid as well. I’ve never worked for a company (until now, perhaps) that put any thought into employee retention. They were all startup companies that were too busy, too cash-strapped, and too panic-managed to “waste” time on things like building the company culture. I’ve been through so many reorgs, acquisitions, layoffs, etc. that I feel employees need to pretty much take care of themselves and not expect someone else to foster their development.

  21. Pirate Jo
    Pirate Jo says:

    Ownership. If you give me ownership of a project and then leave me alone to manage it and run it, I don’t mind doing the grunt work part. Nothing pisses me off more than getting stuck with the grunt work of someone ELSE’s project. This ‘ownership’ idea also speaks to the concept of trust and avoiding the pitfall of micromanagement.

  22. Yasmin
    Yasmin says:

    I agree with most of what’s been said, but I want to emphasize the flexible hours part. As Jacqui said, “surfing the net to make it til 5 seems pretty pointless, no matter how old you are.”

    Amen! I know so many people where this is how they spend the majority of their working day (because of lack of work) – and I was one of them in my last job.

  23. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    Leslie M-B,

    If you are able to complete 40 hrs. worth of work in 25 hrs., great!!! You’re a bargain to the company! They’ll then give you more work to do for the remaining 15 hours, maybe more. They’re not going to pay you for 40 hrs if you complete your work in less time than that (would you?). Usually salaried workers do 60+ hrs worth of work, but only get paid for 40. Rarely does it work in the reverse, as you have suggested.

    As far as you not getting paid as much as the sales folks, that’s the way it is. It’s not a question of fairness. If you want to get paid more, then migrate to jobs that pay more.

  24. Trevor Stafford
    Trevor Stafford says:

    This is an important post, particularly for Canadian readers. Our ‘baby boom’ was even more pronounced than yours, and now we’re seeing young 20-something ‘echo’ workers entering the workforce in droves. Needless to say, the older generation is lamenting the ‘laziness’ and ‘disregard for the corporate facts of life’ of these whelps – and forgetting that they were tagged with the same labels in the 60s as they ‘tuned in, turned on, and dropped out’.

    You’ve hit the nail on the head here. Work has changed. Job security has changed. Young people want to be challenged and respected. Some are pampered Hiltons. Most are not. The truth is that we NEED to mentor these young people. They’ll be running the country soon.

    You had me nodding along with you Penelope. Strong post.

    * * * * *

    Thank you for this comment, Trevor. Always interesting to hear the Canadian take on things…


  25. Alan
    Alan says:

    I often hear some of my friends complain about their jobs. If the task given to you is by any means not related to your position, who wouldn’t?

    * * * * *

    I see your point. But if the task given to you is an opportunity to grow, then it’s a time to celebrate, not complain. We don’t need to limit our skill development by how someone else wrote our job description.


  26. Balanced Life Spa
    Balanced Life Spa says:

    Hi Penelope, I enjoy your blog.

    Regarding your statement on employees not sticking around long enough to climb the corporate ladder: Part of the problem for lawyers, specifically, is once a law firm figures out that you are not going to climb their corporate ladder, they often want you out – right then. In my practice, I heard more than a few partners say, “If you are here, you should want to become an equity partner. If you don’t plan to become an equity partner, make sure I don’t find out about it.”

    Law firms have always been behind the corporate world. Too frequently, they are unwilling to assist their associates in personal and professional development, losing sight of the fact that a Gen X or Gen Y associate who leaves will be more likely to go out and praise the firm if they had valuable growth opportunities, rather than say nothing about the firm or that experience, because they have nothing nice to say. Firms often have a “sink or swim” mentality on everything, and partners often do not care whether associates develop professionally, as long as they keep billing and keep up with the work at hand.

    I think your points (today and generally) are a great start for firms and corporations who are trying to keep younger employees, but law firms are way behind on accepting the fact that forward thinking management (1) would contribute to greater retention of younger workers, and (2) are valuable regardless of whether they result in greater retention.

  27. Alexis
    Alexis says:

    This is a great area of discussion. I am 26 years old and have been a serial job hopper since graduating from college when I was 23. I have had three different jobs over those three years but I am still looking for what I want to keep me in a position. Like most everyone else who has posted here I am looking for respect and challenging work. I am looking for a solid mentor to provide good feedback and criticism and clear communication between all parties. I need a laid back, team oriented environment that is also supportive of new training and educational opportunities.
    I have – so far not found any of the above mentioned things in the three jobs I have held which I know have helped lead me to hop to the next job. These jobs have also all had the word secretary/assistant in them, which is fine, but when I am not given the opportunity to do more than secretarial work regularly I get bored, frustrated and restless. I know I have a lot to offer but it seems that no matter how I try no one wants to take me seriously. The position I am in now, doesn't offer anything that tempts me to stay, so why will I? Right now I am just between a rock and a hard place because my resume is growing longer every time and I have not stayed at a job in the last three years for more than a year. I have wondered if there are other people who get frustrated with the limitations of the corporate world, and now I don't feel so alone. I just wish most employers would listen.

  28. Jillian
    Jillian says:

    For me, at 25, it’s a matter of both mentorship and trust. I am currently in a position that is not in my desired career but I love my job because my boss truly, genuinely trusts me and gives me all sorts of opportunities to work independently. And she gives great feedback. It doesn’t matter that I’m making an extremely small amount of money (well, for now), it matters that I’m in a position of responsibility – and the thing is, no one hires you based on how much you made at your last job, but they do hire you based on what you accomplished.

  29. Fran
    Fran says:

    I agree that unrelated tasks in an opportunity for us to develop new skills. But what if the task given to us is meant for a different position with a higher pay than what we get? I think it’s only necessary to complain.

  30. Can'tStopLaughing
    Can'tStopLaughing says:

    hmmmm…. I think what makes me stay is the need for me at work. I handle so many things at work that if one day I’m not there, it can really put things in disarray. However, what would make me not want to stay is if I’m not appreciated for the things I do at work. If I’m being treated like everything I do is not enough, then I won’t be happy and will probably plan an escape.

  31. Jeremy Salter
    Jeremy Salter says:

    I’m playing catch up on reading some blogs, so someone may have already said this, but I definitely feel like Ryan’s article about ‘Traveling the World on Your Company's Dime’ over at Employee Evolution is a good one regarding a subject like this. He talks about using travel (somewhat vacation like, but in addition to your normal vacation time) as an incentive. The company will then partially fund the travel expenses and urge the involvement of volunteer work wherever the destination is. This could be very beneficial on many different levels and it’s appeal would be high to most of us millennials! The article can be found here:

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