In many companies, it is possible to find workers from four different generations: Traditionalists born before 1946, Baby Boomers born roughly between 1946 and 1965, Generation Xers born between about 1966 and 1980 and Millennials born after 1981. Each generation was shaped by the events of its era, and the resulting differences in communication styles, problem solving strategies and decision making processes can create conflict. The key to resolving this potentially divisive situation is to recognize and respect the perspectives and needs of each generation,
Respect Generational Differences and Recognize Shared Goals
Managers should avoid boxing workers of varying definition according to stereotypes, according to Ann Parker, manager of the Human Capital Community of Practice and the Senior Leaders & Executives Community of Practice at ATD (Association for Talent Development), located in Woodbridge, Virginia. Instead, she advised an approach that draws on common goals.
“Rather than focusing on the differences each generation brings to the workplace, it’s important to highlight shared strengths and similarities. For example, engaged employees like to learn, although the medium by which people from different generations prefer to learn may be different. Most engaged employees are also open-minded to new ways to learn, and to new colleagues from whom they can learn new things,” Parker explained.
For instance, all generations place a high value on families, although each generation expresses that value differently, according to Amy Glass, Professional Development Director of Training, Senior Facilitator & Executive Coach at Brody Professional Development of Jenkintown, Pennsylvania.
“Many times what seems like generational conflict in the office is actually more misunderstanding and miscommunication between managers and reports and (between) colleagues. To work together more harmoniously, we need to understand & appreciate what motivates each generation, Boomers, for example, exude a hardworking ethic and work all the time, ‘off hours’ too, to provide for their families. For a Gen Xer, however, strong family values means they leave work early to coach a kid’s sports team or work from home to spend more time with their family,” Glass explained.
Don’t Insist on a One-Size-Fits-Each (Generation) Approach
Nonetheless, here are still important differences between how workers of different generations approach various aspects of their jobs or careers. For instance, Boomers often favor face-to-face conversation, while Millennials seem to be surgically attached to their cell phones, which they use for nonstop texting. However, recognition of these differences need not be a divisive factor. Instead, savvy employers should exercise flexibility in dealing with employees, according to Nancy Saperstone, Senior Human Resources Business Partner and Communications Specialist for Insight Performance, a human resources consulting firm with offices in Dedham and Danvers, Massachusetts.
“Rather than (creating) specific programs for each generation, having options, where possible, is ideal. Understanding that generations differ in terms of their approach to work life balance and there may not be one size fits all anymore will be appreciated by all your employees,” Saperstone explained.
It’s also important to approach each employee as an individual, rather than as a representative of a particular generation. This approach is an essential element of maintaining a high level of engagement among all workers, according to Parker.
“With a focus on inclusion, it’s also important for employers to treat employees as individuals, not merely as stereotyped members of a specific generation. Ask each person in your organization how he or she works best, what workplace benefits he or she values most, and what his or her career goals are. When employees feel they are valued as unique individuals, and not lumped in with the other Boomers who are going to retire soon, for example, they will feel valued, and in turn, more engaged and loyal,” she stated.
Emphasize Collaboration and Cross Mentorship
Back in the day, the hierarchy among workers was clear. Older workers were the bosses; younger workers did what they were told and waited their turn to progress up the career ladder. In the 21st century, younger workers supervising older worker often generates resentment and tension. Focusing on collaboration rather than supervision can dissipate this tension, according to Parker.
“A practical way to increase collaboration and build relationships among the different generations in your workforce is to form project teams with diverse members of various ages and tenures. Before jumping into the work at hand, allow at least one team meeting for members to get to know each other and the various work styles represented,” she stated.
With situations where younger workers supervise younger workers, it’s essential that the younger supervisors be provided with the tools they need to succeed. That may include coaching or special training, according to Saperstone.
“You may also want to look into developing a reverse mentoring program where both generations learn the perspectives of the other and work to gain each other’s respect,” she suggested.
Mentorships can either be traditional, with older workers counseling younger workers, or reverse mentorships – depending on the skills and abilities of both parties, according to Parker.
“Offer an open program where employees can apply to be mentors and/or mentees based on the skills or abilities they can impart and the knowledge they wish to gain. Then match employees based on these needs,” she suggested.
Avoid Possible Age Discrimination Claims
Multi generational workforces may also be prone to age discrimination claims, especially when younger workers are promoted ahead of older workers. Establishing an equitable hiring and promotion policy and enforcing it consistently can minimize such risks, according to Saperstone.
“Having good job descriptions which outline the duties of the jobs and the skills and competencies along with regular performance reviews will minimize age discrimination charges and ensure that all employment decisions are based on the job,” she explained.
Prepare for the Next Generation
Longer life expectancies and economic factors have combined to motivate many individuals to remain in the workforce beyond the traditional retirement age of 65. As a result, it’s likely that workplaces will continue to deal with multigenerational issues. At some point Millennials will be displaced with a younger generation of workers, who will bring their own perspectives and work styles to their jobs.
“These newest employees – often referred to as Generation Z, “Homelanders” or “Digitals” are now, at age 15, starting to trickle into having their first paying jobs. We don’t know too much about their workplace behaviors yet. What we do know is they are even more aware of and reliant on new communication technologies (than earlier generations). Time will tell how this and their other generational traits will impact our workplaces,” Glass stated.