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Commentary: It's Time For A Generational Truce

Strive to understand millennials, not loathe them.

I’ve always thought Yelp was a strange name for a company. What exactly is a yelp? Does it stand for something? Apparently, it stands for: struggling San Francisco-based corporation that’s embroiled in a self-induced PR nightmare because it’s run by a thin-skinned CEO. That chief executive’s name is Jeremy Stoppelman and he claims he had nothing to do with the firing of a former Yelp employee, Talia Jane, earlier this year. Yeah OK, sure.

The drama started when 25-year-old Talia posted an open letter directed at Stoppelman on the online publishing platform Medium. The sarcasm-laced letter almost instantly went viral and put Stoppelman on the defensive, so much so that he took to Twitter to tell people to “put down the pitchforks.” To which I say: Really, dude? How exactly did you think people were going to react?

Before I raise my personal pitchfork, let me talk a little about Talia first. Her letter has been aptly described as a “kamikaze mission” to either get fired, publicly tar and feather Stoppelman, or both. The post itself was mostly self-serving, I guess Talia’s attempt to evoke sympathy from people while making Yelp sound like a horrible place to work. Listen to some of these gems from Talia in her 3,000 word rant.

“I was told I’d have to work in support for an entire year before I would be able to move to a different department,” she says. “A whole year answering calls and talking to customers just for the hope that someday I’d be able to make memes and Twitter jokes about food.”

And another: “I haven’t been here very long, but it seems like every week the faces change. Do you think it’s because the pay your company offers is designed to attract young people with no responsibilities, sort of like the CIA?”

Some other Talia claims: she can’t afford groceries because 80% of her salary goes to rent, she cries in the bathtub every week, she sometimes sleeps fully clothed, covered in blankets because her heating bill is so high, and she too often has to decide if spending $20 for a doctor co-pay is worth it. She also complains that Yelp provides too few free snacks, she laments her poor co-worker had to start a GoFundMe page to make ends meet, and she recounts the time she accepted $6 from a CVS worker who overheard her plight.

Listen, I feel for Talia, I do. She probably was underpaid and she clearly can’t afford to live in San Francisco. Nobody should have to starve or freeze or go without medical care. And yet, come on, empathy has its limits.

Consider: Instead of getting a roommate or two, Talia lives alone. Instead of taking public transportation to work, she drives a car. Instead of having a frank sit-down with her manager, she calls out her CEO by posting to a Web platform for all the world to see. Did she think she was going to change corporate America by nailing her CEO to the wall? Her naiveté is off the charts, as business just doesn’t work that way.

Let’s face it, Talia ultimately comes across as the stereotypical millennial: entitled, whiny, and begging for attention. She expects someone – like her life is a made-for-Netflix series – to swoop in, champion her cause and save her from injustice. Hopefully, Talia has learned some lessons, namely that publicly ripping your boss is a bad idea. Despite my criticisms of her, I’d be happy if a company gave Talia another shot.

My focus now turns to Stoppelman (a Gen Xer). If he were a true leader, he would’ve responded with solutions, instead of effectively kicking Talia to the curb and then holding court on social media. The public perception is that he was vindictive and his already unprofitable brand has taken a major hit (just look on social media). Imagine how much better this could’ve turned out if Stoppelman wrote his own post answering Talia’s letter, explaining what Yelp is doing to respond to issues employees are facing.

Here’s a thought for Yelp: At my first job, for example, knowing rookie reporters earned next to nothing (I made $20k a year) my TV station rented out nearby apartments to give us a less-costly place to live. The kitchen was the size of a cardboard box, the walls were paper thin and the elevator broke a few times. I survived. More companies, especially in high-cost cities, should think about setting up similar arrangements.

For his part, Stoppelman is like too many other executives: ordinary. He seems to have little idea how to handle, relate to or communicate with millennials like Talia. Boomers and Gen Xers tend to look down on millennials, too often thinking at best they make mediocre co-workers and so-so customers. When a millennial questions the way something has always been done, other generations scoff like the 1% do when the butler is five minutes late bringing the afternoon tea.

I’m suggesting it’s time to call a truce, to open our minds and get along. After all, not everything millennials want or believe in is bad. For example, as employees, they like sped-up training, they crave frequent reviews, and they appreciate the security of base salaries versus strict commission jobs. They also think managers and executives should be transparent and approachable, not dictatorial. As buyers, millennials respect companies that give to charities, they expect rapid and responsive customer service, and they actually demand product functionality over flair.

If you have a problem with these lists, let me be clear that you’re one who needs an attitude change. It’s OK to admit your generational biases – I hold them myself. It can be cathartic to let them go. My advice to you non-millennials out there: Gen Y has a lot to offer, in terms of talent, ideas and sales opportunities. You ignore, ridicule and disdain them at your own risk.