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Article No.: 16-2, February 1, 2016

Article Title: Building a Bridge Across the Generations

Author: Linda Gravett, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, CEQC

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For the past five years, I’ve been focused on interviewing 500 members of each of the five generations working full time in today’s workplace.  I found some common themes that result in three keys to selection and talent development across the generations:  tailor your message; leverage the skills and competencies available in all age groups; and build a brand as an organization that values diversity.
Key #1:  One size does not fit all:  tailor your message.
All age groups I interviewed said that, first and foremost, they want respect.  All age groups desire flexibility in work arrangements.  However, this desire for respect and flexibility manifests itself in different ways from generation to generation.
I am not suggesting that each and every individual in a large organization should have every single work arrangement or benefit that he or she desires.  I’m recommending that leaders periodically “check in” with employees to determine the workplace attributes that are most desirable.  Budgeted dollars can then be channeled into areas that will result in the most mileage in terms of employee engagement and organizational commitment.  All employees may not get everything they want all the time, but they should get what they need much of the time.
The best way to find out what employees need is to ask them.  They can tell you what they have that they really appreciate and what else they need to work effectively, or would simply be nice to have.  You may be surprised at some of their suggestions.  Many will be low cost or no cost and actually accommodate individuals in more than one generation.  You may be able to offer some sort of cafeteria plan that allows employees to select the benefits they need, such as childcare versus aging parent care.  The key to all these solutions will rest on how much and how well you communicate what you offer and why, as well as what you can’t offer now.
The “one size doesn’t fit all” mindset also applies to professional development for employees.  I saw a common trend in my interviews with all generations:  a desire to grow and learn.  Each of the generations had a different focus for what and how they wanted to grow, develop, and learn. Organizations need to be aware of these different needs or reasons to learn and address them individually, rather than trying to make one development initiative fit everyone.  The way an individual learns varies by generation as well as other factors such as adult learning style, and the organization that accommodates these learning styles will see a huge benefit in the return on investment of education and development.
Key #2:  Leverage the skills and competencies available in all age groups.
In today’s competitive, global marketplace each generation’s skill set is crucial to gain competitive advantage.  My technology mentor is an employee who is 23 years old, and I couldn’t care less about his age.  He possesses the expertise in computer technology that I do not.  On the other hand, some of my colleagues in my company are 10+ years older than me.  I value and depend on the wisdom that comes from having “been there, done that.”  Across your organization, there are certainly individuals who can serve as mentors and coaches, to the benefit of the organization.
If you ask employees for ideas on how to capitalize on everyone’s different or unique contributions, you will find a number of easy-to-implement options.  As a group, why not brainstorm ideas and put the best ones into motion? 
Key #3:  Build a brand as an organization that values diversity.
Perhaps you’re thinking, “wait a minute….when did this become a marketing article?!”  I believe our marketing colleagues have some excellent points about building a brand that can be adapted for talent management.
Let me define “branding” in this context first.  A brand can be:

  • The essence of who you are
  •  Features and attributes
  •  Performance
  •  Set of values

There are several ways to build a brand as an organization that values all age groups.

  1. Drive out fear.  Ensure that employees understand that skills, knowledge, and abilities matter.  Age is just a number.  Decisions about people aren’t made based on their age.  If your employees are more concerned about coloring their gray hair to stay young looking than helping your company to succeed, you’re sending the wrong message.  Put systems in place to recognize and reward the performance of all your employees regardless of age or tenure with the organization.

  2. Establish process checkpoints and measures.  No, I’m not leading you down the Affirmative Action path.  I’m suggesting that you establish success criteria such as:  retention of quality staff from all age groups; reduction in employee and management time diverted to conflict and negative infighting because they don’t understand each other; and increased productivity, qualitatively and quantitatively, in work groups that are diverse in terms of age.  Check the results periodically – a few times a year.

  3. Align values across the organization.  Perhaps the organization’s leadership has decided that a core value is “embracing diversity.”  The leadership team may be clear among themselves what that value looks like in action.  Their understanding needs to be shared and communicated effectively across all levels of the organization.  Most importantly, the leadership team will need to demonstrate through their actions their support of each core value.  If core values are internalized, no gaps exist in how people think, who they are, and what they do.

I joined an organization several years ago in part because a published core value was “embracing diversity.”  In a management meeting early in my tenure at this company, my peers started telling jokes after the official meeting ended.  The kidding evolved into telling ageist jokes, one more cruel than the next.  Even though I was only in my 20’s at the time, I thought, “I wouldn’t want to work here when I’m 40!”  And I didn’t:  I started my own company instead.


If you have any questions or need more information about this article, please complete our Contact Form, or contact Dr. Gravett by telephone at 513-753-8870.

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