Managing a multigenerational workforce (Toughest HR Question)

Mutual respect, understanding and flexibility are important – not stereotypes
By Brian Kreissl
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/02/2015

Question: How do we effectively manage a multigenerational workforce?


Answer: There certainly has been a great deal of discussion in recent years relating to the perceived differences among generations in the workplace. While age and generational cohort are important aspects of workplace diversity, it is important to treat everyone fairly and equitably and avoid stereotyping employees or assuming all members of a demographic group want the same things.


But it’s still important to understand demographic trends and the forces that shape and influence different generations. It’s also important to ensure the different generations understand one another and can work well together — in spite of their differences.


Having a respectful workplace policy and culture that respects and celebrates all types of diversity certainly helps, as do training and information sessions relating to the needs of a diverse workforce. However, it is important to avoid stereotyping through blanket statements such as “Millennials require constant feedback” or “Boomers aren’t comfortable with new technology.”


We are all products of our environment so there is certainly some truth to many of the perceived characteristics of the generations. However, studies show there are probably more differences among individual members of a generational cohort than there are among the different groups.


In many ways, most of us want many of the same things and are likely to be engaged by the same types of benefits and programs. For example, we all want work-life balance and most of us desire work that is interesting and meaningful.


It is also important to remember that many differences among employees relate more to age and life stage than they do to actual generational differences. Many of the things desired by millennial employees, for example, are similar to the types of things other generations were looking for when they were younger.


New generations taking over

Organizations need to prepare for new generations taking over — particularly with respect to senior leadership roles. Because of that, it is important to enhance and improve “bench strength” in relation to employees who will be ready to step into senior leadership positions in the relatively near future — particularly among younger, high-potential employees.


Employers also need to deal with an aging workforce, the end of mandatory retirement and the fact that, for many people, traditional notions of retirement are a thing of the past. So it’s important to remember that older employees should not be denied hiring, promotional or training opportunities.


Employers will need to manage, retain and engage workers of all ages and generations for the foreseeable future. But as the baby boomers retire, organizations would be making a huge mistake in letting their knowledge literally walk out the door without trying to capture, disseminate and pass on that knowledge to others.


Coaching, mentoring and knowledge management will become very important in the near future. However, it isn’t just the newer generation who can learn from older employees. Reverse-mentoring programs can help bridge the generational gap and train older employees on new and emerging technologies and ways of doing things.


Nevertheless, great care must be taken not to patronize or stereotype employees based on their age. Both parties need to agree to reverse-mentoring programs for such arrangements to work.


Just because someone is a digital native doesn’t mean she necessarily knows how to leverage social media for business purposes. Not every millennial is particularly tech savvy and, in many cases, boomers and generation X employees have been working with technology for years.


Adopting flexible HR programs

Employers need to be flexible with HR programs and accommodate employees of all ages, life stages and family statuses through perks and activities such as  flexible benefit plans, flexible work arrangements, customized reward and recognition programs and phased-in retirement. 


However, it is important not to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach or assume everyone within a specific demographic is going to want the same things. Not all millennials will care about having a foosball table in the lunchroom, not every generation X employee is going to be excited about supplementary daycare benefits and not every baby boomer will take advantage of free retirement planning sessions.


Above all, it is important not to be seen as trying to retain and engage one generation of employees over another. Sending the message that one group is more important than the others is discriminatory and hardly likely to result in a harmonious work culture.


Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Carswell’s human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions. He can be reached at brian.kreissl@thomsonreuters.com or visit www.carswell.com for more information.

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