Small Business: Bridging workplace generation gaps

The generations in the job force are evident

The generations in the job force are evident in the lines for job and career fairs across the country. Managing different age groups working together presents managerial challenges. This group was looking for work June 6, 2013, in Arlington, Va. (Credit: Bloomberg News / Andrew Harrer)

Jamie Herzlich

Newsday columnist Jamie Herzlich Jamie Herzlich

Herzlich writes the Small Business column in Newsday.

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Large generation gaps can exist in today's workplace because up to four generations can be working alongside one another, and with that come some managerial challenges.

Understanding the key differences and strengths of the generations can help foster better relations and a more cohesive environment, say experts.

"People are living longer and working longer," says Jerry Siegel, president of JASB Management Inc., a Syosset-based management training and development firm. "You have more generations . . . working together or attempting to work together."

They include the "traditionalists" (born 1925 to 45); baby boomers (born 1946 to 64); Gen X (born 1965 to 80); and Gen Y, or millennials, (born 1981 to 2000), says Siegel.

Traditionalists, he says, tend to be very loyal, team players, obedient and adherent to rules, while millennials are highly mobile, and, like Gen Xers, are tech-savvy, multitask and require flexibility.

For boomers, work is their life, while younger workers view work as just a job, says Dianne Durkin, president of Portsmouth, N.H.-based Loyalty Factor, a consulting and training firm specializing in customer, employee and brand loyalty.

"Nexters [Gen Y] work to live versus live to work," she notes. "They strive for balance in their lives."

That's perhaps why boomers and Gen Y tend to have the most workplace conflict, says Durkin, noting a lot of it has to do with their value systems. Gen Yers are often viewed as feeling privileged and wanting everything on their terms, she adds.

In addition, boomer managers can get frustrated because Gen Yers typically seek constant feedback, while Gen Yers are frustrated because they feel they don't get enough feedback, notes Kristen Leverone, global talent development practice leader at Lee Hecht Harrison in Woodcliff Lake, N.J.

As for Gen Xers, well, they're sandwiched somewhere in the middle between the boomers and Gen Y, says Leverone.

Regardless of the generations, though, managers need to know their people. "We always caution people not to stereotype," says Leverone.

Goals, rewards and feedback: Managers should ask workers what goals are important to them, what type of career paths they want to pursue, what rewards matter to them, and how they want to receive feedback, says Leverone.

It's not one size fits all, notes Steve Koenig, managing partner at S.A. Koenig & Associates CPAS, a Syosset tax and accounting firm with a multigenerational workforce.

"You have to know your audience," says Koenig, who works with JASB Management. As a baby boomer, he still likes to see documents on paper, while his younger counterparts may prefer to receive information electronically, he notes. In fact, at the suggestion of Gen X and Gen Y staff members, he's made the office paperless in certain areas including tax and audit.

He said he tries to balance the strengths of each generation, including the institutional knowledge of his older workers.

Communication: It's important to recognize differences and not force any one group into a communication style that may go against their natural tendencies, says Siegel. For instance, don't chastise younger employees for communicating by email, text or instant messaging, he notes, but make them aware when situations are better handled with in-person or phone communication.

Bottom line: To be successful, tailor your communication and management style to each generation. Accommodate employee differences, create workplace choices, be flexible in your leadership style and respect each group's competencies, says Durkin.

Building Individual contact: And don't forget the importance of building individual relationships. "The relationship piece is the most important piece," says Durkin.