HR Roundtable: The Value of a Multi-Generational Workforce

In the classic rock anthem My Generation by The Who, lead singer Roger Daltrey screams, “I hope I die before I get old.” He echoed a sentiment of the times, but he never knew that he was also doing what is happening in organizations around the world – separating people based on their generation. This isn’t new, but it is more prominent and intentional these days and it’s wrong!!

The May (Cincinnati) HR Roundtable dared to take a different stand on generations in the workplace and discuss the strengths of having multiple generations. To get started the group tackled these three questions:

  1. Why do companies focus on differences being “wrong”?
  2. What advantages are there to multiple generations in the workplace?
  3. How can we leverage each other’s strengths?

The room was packed once again and it was also filled with people from all five generations so the discussion was well represented and lively !! Here’s what they came back with.

Why do companies focus on differences being “wrong”?

We value preference over performance — This may be a natural human trait. We like things “our” way. It helps us understand how to move through the day. The challenge is that every person is different in their make-up and approach. When we lead by our preferences vs. expecting performance we struggle. This could be a topic just on its own, but just know that it’s an underlying challenge that exists daily in every workplace.

We believe that conformity is easier to manage — This takes preference one step further. We believe the myth that if we force the workplace environment to be completely uniform, then there will be little variation and even less chaos. It isn’t true, and never has been. However, organizations still spend inordinate amounts of time and effort to try and force conformity to occur.

Fear of what’s new — This was the best answer given to the first question. We hate change. That’s odd because change occurs whether you hate it or not. We state that we want innovation — but not really. The fear of things/ideas that are new is usually because people rarely give context to changes occurring. They just state that it happened, now catch up. We have a great opportunity to correct this personally and throughout our organizations.

Differences aren’t age related, they’re attitude related — This answer received a different colored pen. (I actually run the Roundtables with a flip chart and markers and this answer got the Hot Pink pen!!) This is such a solid observation it needed to be highlighted. We tend to tie differences of opinion and thought to a person’s age when it’s really tied to their perspective, background and approach to life. This point is something to take to heart when discussing generations and our stereotyping. It makes you stop and see that boxing someone by their age is narrow and useless.

What advantages are there to multiple generations in the workplace?

Differences in thought and experience give you many ways to address challenges — It seems obvious, but we tend to overlook this in the workplace. When someone brings up “the past” you’ll see tons of eye rolls and heavy, audible sighs. That’s a shame because learning from people and their experiences can help give perspective that may have been overlooked. It doesn’t mean people should do things as they “always have”. That keeps companies stuck. However, taking into account differences in thought is an advantage to explore.

You can challenge assumptions — How many times have decisions been made because no one questioned assumptions? I don’t think you can put a good number on this. Having people from different generations involved on projects/situations, you have a better chance of someone challenging assumptions. Taking that step back from rushing headlong into something may turn out to be incredibly valuable.

Tenure and institutional knowledge — Tenue by itself isn’t automatically awesome. Some people hang on long after they should have left the company. This was looking more at those who have tenure and are consistently performing, adding value and moving the company forward. Pairing folks with various levels of experience and years of service in a company helps keep the knowledge learned alive. You can create a legacy of success that moves on and on regardless of the generation. This would rock!!

You can pay attention to the audience — Differences (or as HR people like to call it, “diversity”) force us to consider and pay attention to various approaches, ideas and concepts. Having a wonderful mix of people helps companies avoid an over dominant leader or voice. Someone could still try to drive their way over the mass, but it’s very hard to do when this mix of people see themselves as interdependent and collaborative.

How can we leverage each other’s strengths?

Rich dialogue — In this environment when companies, and people in general, are moving at a break neck speed, conversations are often brushed aside as a waste of time. This rush often results in massive mistakes and rework. There should always be time set aside to talk. Bringing people together as talent regardless of age will result in better decisions and movements for organizations. It’s a strength that needs to be rekindled in our workplaces.

Article Continues Below

Learn from how each generation communicates — Instead of seeing communication methods as frustrating because you may not personally use one form or another, learn from each other. If you’re a great in-person communicator, teach others how to do that well. If you rock texting, then teach others the value and ins/outs of doing it well. If you’re active and successful using social media, show others how to maneuver the different platforms. The baseline is that we all communicate. The difference is that you can either teach or complain. Choose to teach instead!!

Mirror your customer base — Isn’t it ironic that we grouse about different generations we work with when our customer base is multigenerational? This reality alone should squelch this incessant effort to separate people based on age. It’s counterproductive to who you serve and who you market to. We just need to take off our blindfolds and look at the bigger environment which exists all around us.

The opportunity to be a mentor and leave a legacy — Everyone wants to add value in life. This is especially true in our work regardless of the level of position we hold. People want to make an impact. Therefore, leverage that and be intentional by having mentors. There is one component to this that we tend to miss though. Don’t make it one sided of older to younger. Make it mentor and mentee with the understanding the both parties should work towards learning from each other. It works and it’s something worth considering.

At the end of the Roundtable all of the generations of attendees miraculously worked together. We should stomp out the separation of generations. It’s detrimental to culture, diversity and an environment that could work together towards success.

Steve Browne

Steve Browne, SHRM-SCP, is the Executive Director of Human Resources for LaRosa's, Inc., a regional pizzeria restaurant chain in the Greater Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio area with 16 locations and over 1,200 team members. Steve has been an HR professional for more than 30 years in the manufacturing, consumer products, and professional services industries. He facilitates a monthly HR Roundtable in Cincinnati and runs an Internet message board for HR pros that reaches 7,800 plus people weekly. Steve joined the SHRM Board of Directors in January 2016. You can contact him at sbrowne@larosas.com, or on Twitter (@sbrownehr). You can also read more on his personal blog, Everyday People.