Managing Different Generations in the Workplace

October 1, 2009

Miscommunication and conflict across generations can cost your company thousands of dollars in lost time and employee turnover. In today’s economy, the skills and talents of every single employee are valuable. Your people are a vital resource in making your company successful. In most companies, one of your largest expenses is payroll, so it makes sense that you would do everything you can to understand your work force and learn how to recruit, develop, and retain good people directly affecting your bottom line. The key to harnessing the talents of each generation is clarifying common goals and objectives while teaching each to respect and value the others’ contribution. The central question is how to do this!

The four generations in the work force today are Radio Babies (born 1930–1945), Baby Boomers (born 1946–1964), Generation Xers (born 1965–1976), and Generation Ys (born 1977–1990). However, conflicting perceptions, worldviews, experiences, and communication styles can damage their ability to work together effectively. Wise employers understand the differences across generations and tailor their employee recruitment and retention programs to meet these different needs.

The recruiting message that draws employees into your company is different for each generation. Radio Babies often can be enticed back into the workplace with flexible hours and benefits. The benefits they are interested in are long-term care insurance, employee assistance programs that provide grief counseling, and medical benefits. Many Baby Boomers are locked into paying for children in college and parents in nursing homes, so it is no surprise that salary is the most important factor for most of this generation. For Gen Xers, it is the entire package, not just the money, that brings them into the organization. They want to know how much they will make combined with what time off they will have and what health-care programs the company has. Work-life balance is very important to them. They also want growth opportunities. They are not title chasers but they want to expand their knowledge, skills, and abilities. So strong training programs are a must for them. Generation Ys want a good salary, friendly and casual work environment, and growth opportunities, but it’s not all about the money for them. The top reasons they leave a company are that they feel their employer didn’t value their work, there was a lack of training, or they could have more responsibility elsewhere. They need to know how their jobs are important to the company’s success.

In a survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, 40 percent of human resource professionals reported observing conflict among employees as a direct result of generational differences. The largest source of conflict is the debate about work ethic. Radio Babies worked hard out of necessity going through the Great Depression and World War II. They taught the Baby Boomers this work ethic. Both find it hard to understand the younger generations’ demand for work-life balance. They feel these generations should pay their dues, but younger employees have learned from watching their parents and grandparents that they need to take control of their work schedules. This does not mean Gen Xers and Gen Ys don’t care about their work. They are more concerned with results than doing things in traditional ways. Other differences that give rise to conflict are loyalty, respect, technology, training, and dress code.

It is important to understand how each generation responds to conflict. Radio Babies tend to respect authority and would not confront a manager even if they didn’t agree. Baby Boomers want to bring a team together but allow the manager to make the final decision. Generation Xers are independent and will ignore older co-workers’ efforts to tell them what to do. They will tell a co-worker in a straightforward way if they have a problem. Generation Ys are more casual and relaxed. They do not respond well to conflict. They want everyone to be friends in the workplace. Training on directly confronting issues and people in a positive way is necessary for many in this generation.

There are ways for managers to give feedback to employees that will minimize conflict. For Radio Babies, let them know you appreciate their effort and explain how their change in behavior will help the company. For Baby Boomers, emphasize that you need them for the team success and set a team plan for changing behaviors. For Gen Xers, you must be straightforward, honest, and focus on results. For Gen Ys, explain how their work affects the company. Companies have to learn to focus on results instead of being restricted to traditional ways of handling these issues.

Training and discussing generational differences can also help minimize conflict. Employees need to understand why other generations feel the way they do and learn how to identify common myths and misconceptions. Managers must recognize these differences when communicating with employees so that they use a method that can effectively get the desired results.

In closing, the three keys to effectively managing a multi-generational work force are to tailor your recruitment and retention messages to appeal to the interests and needs of each generation, understand and draw upon each generation’s unique perspective, and value a generationally diverse work force.

This article originally appeared in The Contractor’s Compass and is reprinted with permission of the American Subcontractors Association and Naylor, Inc.