Diversity Insight

Managing a Multigenerational Workforce

Today’s workforce is more age-diverse than ever before, with Silents, Baby Boomers, Generation Xers, Millennials, and Generation Zers all sharing work space. With five different generations in the modern workforce spanning the ages from 16 to 72, managing employees in a way that promotes good will, productivity, and efficiency is more important than ever.

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A recent study showed that 25% of managers reported that managing multiple generations within the workforce was a challenge, and among employees themselves, 77% identified different work expectations as a chief concern in working with members of other generations. The current workforce has also reached an unprecedented tipping point, with millennials comprising the largest section of the working demographic.

With that shift, more millennials have been placed in supervisory roles over older employees—a change that might bring feelings of uncertainty and skepticism to multigenerational teams. Adding in the fact that mentoring and communication styles differ dramatically across generations fuels the flame. In short, an age-diverse workforce can be a great asset if managed properly. Problems left unaddressed, however, can and often do lead to low morale and other problems.

Scrap the Golden Rule

Managers can do something about the slump. Opportunities exist that can bring multiple generations together at work, and they involve turning traditional workplace concepts on their heads. For instance, to succeed with a workforce of Baby Boomers and Generation Zers, adhering to the Golden Rule’s adage “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” may not be enough. Understanding a workforce of age-diverse employees also means acknowledging that each generation has its own idea of what respect looks and sounds like, and treating others as you would want to be treated may not always be the best approach with a colleague 20 years older or younger than you.

Thus, the Golden Rule may be replaced by what is called the Titanium Rule—”Do unto others according to their druthers.” This philosophy acknowledges that not all others want to be treated as you would want to be treated. Although this isn’t to say you should cater to every whim of a coworker, simply being tuned in to that individual’s preferences could help significantly to bridge the generational gap. For example, a younger supervisor may want to consider giving more facetime to the older coworker she manages, especially if that coworker achieves better results with that type of communication. Conversely, the older coworker may want to embrace technology more, particularly if that is how her supervisor prefers to communicate.

Two-Way Mentoring

Another way to help bring your workforce together is through reciprocal mentoring. Reciprocal mentoring involves creating a two-way, teambuilding relationship between an older employee and a younger one, as opposed to the traditional model in which the older employee is solely responsible for imparting all of the knowledge. Particularly when a younger employee supervises an older one, reciprocal mentoring could help reduce feelings of inadequacy or insecurity, give all employees a sense of contribution, and break down stereotypes.

Implementing those strategies with a multigenerational workforce can help create a working environment that focuses more on the similarities between the generations as opposed to the differences and brings a unified goal into focus. Alternatively, or in addition to those options, you might consider offering age diversity training or simply promoting collaborative opportunities when possible. In addition to raising morale, this approach will also help defeat the type of mindset that can lead to age discrimination claims filed by older workers.

Bottom Line

If your workforce suffers because of generational gaps, you can raise productivity and morale by giving all employees—young and old—a sense of contribution. Remember that our differences make us stronger. Acknowledge generational differences, but don’t dwell on them. Above all, understand that stereotypes are just that: stereotypes.

Shelby A. Hicks-Merinar is an Associate with Steptoe & Johnson PLLC. She also contributes to the West Virginia Employment Law Letter and can be contacted at shelby.merinar@steptoe-johnson.com.