Forget just trying to achieve peace between the Gen Xers and the Baby Boomers, today's companies need to know how to get four generations to pull together.
When you work in financial services, casual Friday is a semi-formal affair. As Tami Scott remembers it, the twentysomething staff members at Estevan, Saskatchewan-based Spectra Credit Union found that idea highly amusing. To them, dressing down meant jeans and T-shirts, not khakis and sweater sets. After the youngsters were done snickering, Spectra management spelled out the rules by renaming casual Friday as, well,
For Scott, who is vice-president of marketing and human resources, this incident was one more sign that her office had become a four-generation workplace. Today, the youngest of Spectra's 137 employees is 18 and the oldest is 62. Dress codes notwithstanding, Scott says there have been few conflicts, partly because the company strives to treat people as individuals. "Our policies are grey or generic enough that they can be adapted to a variety of different situations and different circumstances," she explains. In 2000, Spectra introduced a flex-work program that's now popular with all employees, whether they go skiing midweek or care for aging parents. For the past few years, the company has also surveyed staff to better understand what engages workers at different times in
Who are the four generations now sharing cubicles in many North American offices? Happily, demographers have spared no effort in delineating them. The oldest are the Traditionalists (62 and up). Then there are the Baby Boomers (43 to 61), the largest cohort, followed by the much smaller Generation X (26 to 42). Youngest of all are the Millennials or Generation Y (25 and under), whose numbers rival the Boomers'. Shaped by pivotal events such as the Great Depression, the Cold War, and the rise of digital culture, each generation has its own values and preoccupations.
Giselle Kovary and Adwoa K. Buahene are managing partners of n-gen, a Toronto-based performance-consulting company that helps clients deal with the four-generation challenge. According to the pair-whose book Loyalty Unplugged: How to Get, Keep & Grow All Four Generations (Xlibris) appears February 22-employers are starting to take action the way Spectra did. "People are more aware that they need to understand their employee markets and better target them as a way to reduce turnover and increase performance and productivity," Kovary says.
An integrated HR strategy that speaks to all generations is vital, she adds. "We've seen organizations where they've been so eager to get and keep their younger workers that they've alienated the more experienced people. We really suggest an open and blended approach." In one case, a financial-services firm was zealously recruiting employees aged 20 to 30. When other staff protested that perks and social activities were skewed toward this group, the company swiftly balanced out its programs.
To get there, it's important to understand how different generational identities translate into distinct workplace behaviours. Take loyalty, for example. Faithful to the organization, Traditionalists expect to spend their whole career with one or two employers. Having been burned by downsizing, Boomers focus on becoming stars at the team level, while independent-minded Gen Xers and gregarious Millennials bond with managers and peers, respectively. "[Millennials'] loyalty can be impacted if something negative happens to someone in their peer group," Kovary cautions.
Then there's work ethic. Ambitious, job-identified Boomers are notorious for putting in long hours, while Buahene says Millennials may work smarter rather than harder. To the chagrin of Boomer colleagues, employees in their 20s and 30s also expect promotions based on results rather than seniority. "Young professionals move when they feel that they're no longer learning, growing or developing," Buahene notes.
Doris Bentley, principal of Vancouver-based Centrepoint Career Management, says another potential conflict arises when older employees report to younger managers. "It's very much about getting to the point and what needs to get done, which older worker sometimes can find offensive," she observes of the latter's style. But their more experienced colleagues shouldn't take this directness personally. "[Millennials and Gen Xers have] been raised with technology that's very quick and responsive, and they tend to talk that way as well."
In Bentley's experience, having four generations in the workplace is an opportunity for companies to improve service by appealing to a wider range of clients. They'll also gain a better understanding of customers' needs. When Spectra Credit Union launched Internet banking a few years ago, some staff thought the marketing effort should only target the 18-to-40 age group. But others pointed out that older people, including seniors, have embraced technology too. "Sharing that perspective with each other is very helpful in building long-term [customer] relationships," Tami Scott says. "It's an education." And money in the bank.