Millennials have a different understanding of what it means to be diverse than their older counterparts, new research finds. 

Earlier generations tend to have a traditional (read: outdated) understanding of what it means to be inclusive, according to a study out Wednesday, dubbed "the Radical Transformation of Diversity and Inclusion: The Millennial Influence." The survey, which polled nearly 4,000 subjects all from varying age groups and professional levels, was conducted jointly through consultancy firm Deloitte and the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative

For Gen X--those born between 1965 and 1980--diversity is a moral imperative as opposed to an economic one. In other words, they care more about representation and assimilation because they view it as the right thing to do, not because it could benefit their bottom lines. Gen Y--those born between 1980 and the early 2000s--by contrast, is focused on cognitive diversity as a means to a business outcome: They care about things like collaboration and teamwork, as well as incorporating unique perspectives, opinions and thoughts. 

The discrepancy between generational notions of diversity could spell trouble for your business, if it hasn't already. Workplaces, which are typically run by older generations, continue to enforce outdated models of inclusion which can alienate their millennial employees, the study authors argue.

Billie Jean King cautions that this lack of cognitive diversity is triggering something of a crisis among younger workers. "This work is a first step towards spotlighting the urgent needs for companies to reevaluate their approach to diversity and inclusion in order to retain millennial talent, remain competitive, and foster innovation," King writes in a press release.

What's more, the study notes that 71 percent of younger workers don't follow their employer's social media policies. Rather, they want to express their diverse perspectives "freely"--which is causing rifts with managers and HR representatives. 

That traditional diversity initiatives are at odds with younger values could be similarly bad for employee retention: Although Gen Y is set to comprise nearly 75 percent of the workforce by 2025, they shift jobs roughly every two years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Millennials frequently cite an employer's lack of tolerance--or not allowing employees to "be themselves"--as a reason to quit, a 2012 study from Bentley University found. Even when they do stick around, they're far less likely to be engaged, empowered, and authentic if they don't perceive the company to be cognitively diverse, the Deloitte and BJKLI study showed. 

The upshot? If you want to keep your top talent around, perhaps it's time to shift how you think of (and foster) diversity in the workplace. 

Published on: May 13, 2015