How to Manage Employees of Different AgesIf you find that people from different generations clash at your workplace, you’re not alone.
Differing values about many topics—from whether tattoos are acceptable to whether employees should sacrifice their personal lives for the company—are common in many Alachua County workplaces.
The conflicts among generations reflect what’s going on in society as a whole, with younger workers who grew up in a highly “wired” culture and a strong emphasis on independence marching to a different drummer than older generations.
In the past, older workers were bosses, and younger workers did what was asked of them, no questions asked, says Greg Hammill of Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey.
“That’s no longer true,” he says. “Roles today are all over the place, and the rules are being rewritten daily.”
In fact, employers today face a unique challenge because for the first time in history four generations are working side-by-side, says Hammill.
Thankfully, some area businesses and academics have suggestions for bridging this generation gap.
Understand and Adapt
RTI Biologics, based in Alachua, has employees who range from college-aged interns to members of the Veterans generation (born before 1945). One way it helps integrate the group is by encouraging employees to understand and adapt to each other.
As an example, Tracy Riggins, RTI’s manager of training and development, cited the way workers communicate. “Younger workers are used to using texting shortcuts and sometimes write e-mails the same way,” she says. Older workers might worry that an e-mail filled with abbreviated words indicates a younger worker can’t spell. Instead, the focus should be on the content of the message.
Riggins also says the company asks employees to recognize that the people they’re contacting may have different preferences for communicating.
“I emailed a City of Alachua official to ask a question, and he scheduled a meeting with me,” she says. “I figured he could have replied by e-mail. I had to recognize that face-to-face was his preferred form of communication.”
“We all have to adapt to each other’s style about whether we prefer e-mails, phone calls, text messages or face-to-face meetings,” Riggins says.
On a related issue, Hammill of Fairleigh Dickinson says it’s important for managers to understand that even the phrases they use may not carry the same meaning with other generations.
“When a Boomer says to another Boomer, ‘We need to get the report done,’ it is generally interpreted by the Boomer as an order; it must be done and done now,” Hammill says. “However, when a Boomer says to a Generation Xer, ‘This needs to be done,’ the Xer hears an observation, not a command, and may or may not do it immediately.”
When working with a younger workforce, it’s important for employers and managers to lighten up and accept that attitudes and social mores have changed, suggests Henry Tossi, McGriff professor of management at UF.
RTI has adopted this attitude and counsels its workers to be more accepting. For example, there’s the issue of generational attitudes about the effort workers are perceived to be putting into a job.
“Some of our older employees expect that everyone should work from sunup to sundown,” Riggins says, “It really bothers them when their co-workers set limits.”
“I have to say to employees that as long as the work gets done, does it really matter if they work ‘over’ or not? It comes down to individuals wanting to have work/life balance,” she says.
Of course, it’s not just older employees who have to learn to adjust. It’s important that younger workers accept the need to modify their behaviors when it’s required. One area where this is important for RTI involves social media. Younger workers may think nothing of posting candid information about themselves online but some postings aren’t acceptable for RTI, which processes donated bone and soft tissue for transplantation, and is heavily regulated. So, the company is developing a social media policy to regulate what its employees post online, says Jenny Highlander, RTI’s manager of corporate communications.
“We want to be sure that the employees understand what we expect as far as what they say about the company,” Highlander says.
Generational gaps have always been a challenge but if employers manage thoughtfully and prepare their staffs they can still get top performance. Highlander at RTI learned that herself. She recently began supervising a new University of Florida grad who’s 22. “He brought in his personal laptop and his cell phone,” she says.
Highlander worried that the employee would spend an excessive amount of time texting friends and being on social media sites.
“I wondered, ‘How is he going to get anything done?’” she says. “I waited to see how it would go. It turns out that his work is excellent, yet he’s able to stay connected with his life.”
The scary part? Highlander is only 30 and already is experiencing the generation gap.