“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”
This classic quote from “Cool Hand Luke” could have been penned with the multi-generational workforce in mind. Juggling the many generations of today’s workforce is one of the top challenges HR pros must tackle in pursuit of workplace harmony.
In January 2017, Robert Half surveyed more than 2,000 CFOs from U.S. companies about where the greatest workplace differences lie between generations. “The top three responses they heard were communication, change management and technical skill,” notes Natasha Bowman, JD, SPHR, Founder and CEO of professional training and coaching firm Performance ReNEW.
Chris Mullen, SPHR, Director of Human Resources at the University of Colorado Boulder, agrees. “One of the more important challenges I see is that individuals of each generation are guilty of not spending enough time trying to get to know the communication styles of other generations.
“There seems to be this attitude of ‘they need to adapt to us,’ as opposed to seeing the benefits of the different styles of each generation.”
So how can HR pros better facilitate intergenerational integration in the workplace?
1. Avoid Stereotyping.
Plug the phrase “generational characteristics” into any search engine and it will spit out page after page of articles claiming to define generational features. As well intentioned as these lists might be, they can frequently lead to stereotyping.
Bowman cautions HR pros to steer clear of this trap. “Leaders in human resources should focus primarily on the specific people under their care. Seek first to listen to their concerns and understand their point of view.”
In other words, listening goes a long way.
2. Provide activity-oriented training.
Employee-wide training is a great way to bridge the generational gap in the workplace. Training should focus on the strengths and benefits of each age group.
These can take many forms: small group discussions, Q&A formats, role-playing and question cards. All are designed to get people talking and, more importantly, listening.
Mullen notes the importance of a hands-on approach: “These training sessions should provide information, but also incorporate activities and time for employees of various generations to interact and work together so that they can conquer a task/challenge together.”
3. Lead by example.
At the same time, Michelle Diaz, PHRca, SPHR Director of Human Resources for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, feels training in and of itself can fall short.
“Many organizations provide diversity training. But simply providing training won’t necessarily solve all potential challenges,” she says. “Implementing or leading by example is the best way to foster an environment that is open and accepting of an intergenerational culture.”
For example, older workers often perceive their millennial colleagues as lazy or entitled; it’s a generalization that younger workers are understandably tired of.
Diaz encourages HR to approach younger and older workers one-on-one to tactfully reframe related discussions when they hear them. Such in-the-moment feedback from HR pros can set the tone for the entire organization.
4. Understand that conflict isn't necessarily generational.
Time and time again, companies have experienced the benefits of more diversified employee teams. However, with greater diversity comes the potential for greater conflict, which can often have nothing to do with generational differences.
When misunderstandings fester and worsen, differences in behaviors, habits and styles can sometimes lead to conflict. Chief Culture and People Development Officer for Republic Bank & Trust, Michelle Koch, SPHR, points out that each employee is a one-of-a-kind representation of their DNA. “So when conflict surfaces, don’t automatically assume it is due to generational differences, as there are many factors that make us unique.”
5. Reinforce common ground.
Regardless of their identifying generation, the one thing all employees can bond over is the company itself. Reinforcing company mission, vision and culture is the HR leader’s secret weapon to combating generational differences.
"Older employees who dedicate themselves to achieving the organizational mission -- rather than protecting a certain way of doing things-;will be far more receptive to the contributions of their younger counterparts", Bowman advises.
“By the same token, younger employees who desire above all to see the organization succeed will be open to receiving the guidance and mentorship of their elders,” Bowman says. After all, employees who have grown in an organization know what a person needs to do to succeed there.
Being able to foresee -- and forestall -- an “us versus them” mentality is key to successful intergenerational workplace integration.
It all comes down to listening. HR leaders need to be sensitive to generational differences, but the greatest sensitivity comes with dealing with each and every employee as an individual and as a vital member of the team.