Hey everyone! I just delivered a webinar with BizLibrary to 750 people about generational issues in the workplace. It went pretty well, if the lack of death threats is any indication, and several people asked follow-up questions about specific issues they were facing at work. Since I thought some of you might be facing the same problems, I thought I’d share those exchanges. Hope this is useful!
1. How does shared governance work with these generational differences?
If I understand you right, shared governance is applying core beliefs into a professional framework in a way that fosters teamwork, accountability, etc. If so, then it’s important to include people from every age/experience level in the formulation of those core values. You can’t ‘tell’ any group of people what their core values should be without asking them their opinion and what they might add/subtract from your model. You also can’t ever expect everyone to be fully on board with any one policy. People of different ages and experience levels have always bumped heads, and nothing will ever perfectly fix that. But as long as you’re asking everyone to give their two cents, you’ll be able to come up with a model that is as close as possible to providing a shared vision that everyone can get behind.
2. Our CEO wants me to do some training on “millennials in the workplace”. Do you think I should suggest this older worker/younger worker concept as an alternative?
Please please please! Any group of people who feels like they’re the only ones who have to compromise is going to resist the message. Any training that says “Millennials are like this, they expect that, so you need to deal with it and figure out how to give it to them” is going to result in everyone else saying, “Why do I always have to be the one to give? When am I ever going to get something?” So whatever training you do should incorporate the reality that EVERYONE is going to compromise a little, and it’s important for everyone to understand where their own concessions might be, and why.
3. How can it be done for the HR VP to stop stereotyping the millennials?
I’m not actually sure it’s bad to stereotype. In all fairness, I’m relying on certain stereotypes in order to have come up with the ideas I shared in my webinar. We stereotype people (i.e. put people into groups) as a way to make things easier. The problem is when those stereotypes are presented as wholly negative and undesirable. So I think the solution is for your HR VP to recognize that whatever his/her stereotypes are have some basis in reality, and then to figure out what constructive thing can be done about it. If, for example, the stereotype is “Millennials aren’t hard workers,” the follow-up question HAS to be, “Why are millennials not working as hard as I want them to?” If the answer is some kind of tautological, “Well, they just don’t work hard,” then you’ll accomplish nothing. And since accomplishing nothing is not a good business goal, you have to figure out what conditions you might change in order to get what you want. Long story short, the stereotypes are OK as long as the response to those stereotypes is to try and understand why those stereotypes exist, rather than throwing up your hands and saying there’s nothing to be done about them.
4. Do you feel that mentoring programs work well between the two generations?
Absolutely, so long as both groups think they’re going to get something out of it. Often older workers resist mentoring because they worry that they’re ‘training their replacements’ in some kind of negative way – that is, as soon as I’ve trained this millennial up, he/she is going to steal my job. We tend to think that young workers are the only ones who worry about job stability because they’re new and have been raised in a more temp-to-hire environment, but a lot of older workers are also quietly worried that they’ve slowly become obsolete and will be replaced soon by someone more contemporary (tech-savvy, innovative, etc.) than they are. So if mentoring is framed as a win-win – e.g. you help our new employee by imparting your decades of wisdom to him/her, and you’ll receive some valuable insight into some of the modern business practices we hired them to bring into the organization – it will probably go better than if they think they’re doing all the work for none of the reward. This often requires a lot of conversations to get people to understand the reciprocal value of mentoring, so don’t expect it to be accomplished with a single 15-minute meeting.
5. How do you deal with the disrespect the older workers feel when the younger workers treat them like peers (particularly when they come from “chain of command”-type organizations?
Just like parents have earned the right to be treated a certain way by their kids, older workers have often earned (or at least feel like they’ve earned) a similar right to be treated a certain way by their younger colleagues. That said, nobody should expect to be given immediate and unquestioning deference just because they’re older or more-experienced; the only organization that functions that way is the military. So it can be helpful to talk with younger workers and encourage them to compare their older colleagues to band leaders, or team captains; yes they are colleagues, but at the end of the day they will ultimately call the shots, so you need to know when to joke around and when to take orders. And then talk with anyone who expects that kind of blind obedience to remind them that it needs to be earned if they actually want it. Or better yet, have the people in question sit down and talk about their expectations for the relationships. This won’t solve every problem, but it will mitigate them if everyone knows what everyone else wants.
6. Should HR set the culture of generational diversity and provide guidance?
Ideally the culture should be set at the team level, where every manager is encouraging the kind of conversations and ‘see it from their side’ approach to each of his/her team members in order to build the kind of culture we want. But if that isn’t or is not likely to happen, HR is the best department for establishing the guidelines for others to follow. HR often gets a reputation as the department whose job is to tell you what to do, but here is an opportunity to reframe that as ‘I’m going to tell you how to succeed and get along and like each other better than ever.’
7. What do young people expect from a multinational company?
It depends. Almost anyone, young or old, who is attracted to a large multinational company is intrigued by the advancement opportunities, the variety of jobs that will be available to them over time, and the security that a large company is supposed to offer its employees. (By contrast, people who prefer more risk or a fast-paced ever-changing work environment tend to gravitate toward smaller companies or entrepreneurial ventures.) One thing that young people don’t necessarily expect is a lot of travel. That doesn’t mean they won’t do it, but I’ve talked with a few hiring managers who said they have probably scared away good applicants by talking too heavily on the front end about how much travel the job is going to involve. People should absolutely be told, “This job will involve some travel,” but you don’t necessarily need to hammer home how much of it right at the beginning. If I’m applying for a job and am told that I’ll be gone half the year, I can easily think, “I’m not sure I want to travel that much for a company I don’t even work for yet; how do I know I’ll like it?” But if I’m told my job will involve some travel and then I’m eased into that over a period of months or years, I’m more likely to be OK with it because by then I’ll have realized that this is a good place to work and I like what I’m doing.
8. Several articles I’ve read indicated there are not enough Gen X to take over leadership positions from Baby Boomers – so expecting Millennials to move into positions of leadership much sooner. Other than mentoring programs, what other suggestions do you have to accelerate their learning of leadership since it is a process?
Several ideas. When they are newly hired, encourage them to present to your other employees on any subject they already know a lot about. This will give them speaking practice (good for sales, management, etc.) and also show your more-experienced employees that the new kid actually knows something worth knowing. As early as possible, put them in charge of any project that it is reasonable for them to own – which generally means non-critical things where failure is an acceptable (if not ideal) outcome. Once you’ve identified top talent/high potential people, encourage them to get more schooling (MBA, advanced certifications, etc.) if those will be necessary for them in the future. You might have to offer to pay for those or at least lighten their workload somehow if you want it to happen on your timeline and not theirs. Take them on customer visits/sales calls/conferences even if their only job will be to sit and stare and learn. Give them one book to read every week/month/quarter and then go to lunch sometime afterwards to talk about it so they can start thinking strategically. Some of these ideas are predicated on them being hard-working (which of course is what you want in future leaders), and others are ways to help you figure out which people have future potential (e.g. if someone will take the time to read a book, for example).