Worker diversity Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2008

Aone-size-fits-all approach doesn’t fit today’s age-diverse work force: The generation gap between the youngest and oldest workers in some workplaces can span more than 40 years. On one end of the spectrum, there’s the 20-something who is fresh out of graduate school or college and is seeking flexible schedules or work-from-home options; on the other end are the employees nearing retirement.

“A company might have four generations of workers at one time,” says Kathi Crawford, Vice President of Human Resources for Talent Tree, a staffing company based in Houston. “Each generation comes with its own set of values, needs and attitudes, and vastly different expectations on communication styles and work expectations.”

Smart Business spoke with Crawford about how managers can best understand and meet the needs and priorities of each generation — from the younger Generation X and Y to the middle-aged baby boomers to the older Silent Generation.

What is the most pronounced work style difference among the four generations?

The most glaring difference among the generations is the preferred method of communicating with others. Those in their early 20s, known as Generation Y, have had technology in their lives since they were very young. High-tech tools, such as video-conferencing, are second nature to them. Generation X — those in their mid-20s to late 30s — is also very comfortable using e-tools, such as e-mail and text messaging. Baby boomers who did not grow up in a high-tech world still prefer face-to-face meetings and telephone conversations over electronic methods of communicating, as does the Silent Generation — those over 62.

What are the other differences among the generations that can be challenging to managers?

Each generation has a different approach to how it views the workplace. The Silent Generation tended to conform and not question authority; 95 percent of this generation, by the way, has already retired, although some remain in high-level positions. The baby boomers — the group that is now running most companies — tend to very optimistic and idealistic. They are typically overachievers and work long hours.

Generation X and Y are very different from the preceding generations in that they are much more concerned about their work-life balance. Perhaps they learned from their parents how difficult it can be to have a high-powered career and raise a family. The younger generations do work hard, but they are extremely careful to maintain a good quality of life outside of work.

How can managers help bridge the generation gap?

Managers need to be cognizant of the age gap of the audience when making a presentation, running a meeting or creating incentives for an employee. For example, a baby boomer might be motivated by a bonus, but a member of Gen X may prefer more vacation time.

It is also important that the generations take time to learn each other’s communication styles. Gen X and Y workers need to learn how to conduct face-to-face meetings and when to pick up the telephone rather than send an e-mail. This training can easily be accomplished through coaching, a method to which Gen X and Y employees are very receptive. That said, it is also important that the older generation work to incorporate more high-tech communication tools in the workplace, such as video-conferencing for clients or employees in remote locations.

Those employees in Generation X, in particular, come into the workplace with a lot of confidence and perceived ideas about how things work. Baby boomers or the Silent Generation must resist the urge to micromanage these young workers and instead help them along through mentoring and by gradually increasing their responsibilities. Remember, Gen X and Y are very sensitive about the work-life balance and are motivated by companies that respect that.

As the baby boomers retire, how important is it to change corporate culture to accommodate the needs of Gen X and Y?

It is very important because there are less people in this newer generation who can step into the shoes of the baby boomers as they leave. The competition for talent in Gen X and Y workers is already fierce, with talent shortages creating voids in certain industries such as IT, finance and engineering. It is the responsibility of the baby boomer and Silent Generation to transition their knowledge to the Gen X and Y workers and groom them for succession and leadership.

Companies can begin to do that by looking at the best practices used in other businesses in their industry. Business owners and managers should also seek support from their human resources departments and training and development professionals to help them facilitate and coach their staff about generational differences.

KATHI CRAWFORD is the Vice President of Human Resources for Talent Tree, based in Houston. Reach her at (713) 361-7315 or kathi.crawford@talenttree.com. She is also serving as 2008 president, Houston Chapter, American Society for Training and Development (ASTD).