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My Generation: How to bring multiple generations together in your workplace

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In today’s workplace, we recognize the importance of preventing discrimination, whether based on gender, race, personality type, or other differences, and it isn’t hard to find training or programs that encourage solid and meaningful inclusion of all types of people in our workplaces.

But do we take the same approach when it comes to generational differences? When generational differences come into play in a nonprofit workplace, is this seen as a legitimate human resources issue – or is there simply eye-rolling and stereotyping about people who are different from us? A recent report by the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) suggests the latter. While more than half of HRPA members surveyed indicated their companies have experienced tensions between age groups because of perceived differences in values or work habits, only 10 percent of companies have done anything to integrate Millennial employees with their other workers.

“Our workplaces in general simply aren’t equipped to create a culture where all perspectives are respected,” observes nonprofit consultant Sheena Greer of Colludo. It’s strangely acceptable to stereotype Millennials as tough to manage, entitled, narcissistic, self-interested, unfocused, lazy. And the challenge isn’t only for Millennials – in some organizations, Boomers are treated like obsolete dinosaurs who should retire or move out of the way. Greer says, “We all have so much to learn from each other, and teach to one another. ‘Kids these days’ is not a complaint that should weave itself into a workplace culture. Nor should ‘Isn't your ice flow waiting for you, grandma?’ We're here to solve problems, not point fingers.”

However, unlike integrating genders or race in the workplace, when it comes to generational challenges, it can often be seen as the job of the individual simply to fit in with the majority culture. But, as Bill Greenhalgh, CEO, HRPA says, "If companies aren't taking steps to mitigate the potential tensions that generational differences can make, they will face major problems."

Hasn’t there always been a generation gap?

In a recent TED Talk, Lindsay Pollack, the “the leading voice on millennials in the workplace” read this quote: “I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today.” The catch? The quote is actually from an 8th century BC poet.

It’s true that generational challenges have always existed. What is different, according to Denise Lloyd, chief engagement officer at Engaged HR is the increase in the rate and pace of change. “It used to take ten years to become irrelevant and now it can happen overnight because the pace of change has increased.” Future of work and change leadership expert and author Cheryl Cran agrees, adding that the world is also increasing more and more in complexity.

The increased rate of change and complexity can be overwhelming and even frightening for us as human beings, which is why, Cran adds, there is an increase in polarization and intolerance between people — in this case leading to a deeper sense of frustration between generations in the workplace, as we feel our own sense of identity being threatened.

“All my research shows that this fear of threat is unfounded,” says Cran, “as long as we are able to be adaptable, flexible and willing to understand differences without seeing them as burdens or barriers.” This is where organizations can help all of their employees by providing generational training.

To the frequent grumbling about the need for this, Pollack says, “I think it’s because we Gen Xers and Baby Boomers feel some inherent sense of justice, that we didn’t get this type of treatment when we started out, so why do we have to be so accommodating? But here’s a way to reframe that. Do you want to do what works to motivate your employees or do you want to get revenge on how you were managed when you were starting out?”

Lloyd adds, “It isn’t about making the workplace fit for any one generation, but understanding everyone in your workplace so you are taking lots of different perspectives and needs into account.”

Before you start

It’s very easy for this to become an exercise in perpetuating or even creating stereotypes. Lloyd cautions, “Don’t label and treat people a certain way because they are part of a generation. It’s not helpful to say, ‘you’re a millennial so I’m sure you want x.’”

Eric Termuende, former CEO of a Calgary consultancy group that helps organizations solve the “perceived” millennial problem says, “As soon as we grossly generalize a generation, we will get it wrong at least some of the time.”

Lloyd encourages organizations to get away from labels and stereotypes and instead to get to know people as people. This is particularly important for Millennials, says Pollack, who “generally don’t identify with or often even recognize the terms ‘Gen Y’ or ‘Millennial. Instead...they want to be seen as individuals.”

Now let’s look at how generational awareness comes into play in different aspects of human resources.

Generational training

It is helpful to understand the people you work with. “I’m a proponent of having workplaces that take all generations, genders, etc. into account,” says Lloyd. “Not as boxes that people have to fit in but in an effort to create an environment that fits the people you have and those you serve.”

Cran says, “It’s less about differences between generations and more about collaborating. Yes, there is a generational divide — but what do we do about it? Every generation needs to be aware that there are generational situations that are prevalent and to know how to work collaboratively.

“Generational training allows employees from different generations to interact with one another to gain insight into what makes each other tick, and to get rid of biases or stereotypes that one generation thinks of another,” says Scott Allinson, vice president, public affairs, HRPA. “It can be especially helpful for older managers to understand needs of younger workers, and for younger leaders to better understand older employees. It’s about being able to work better together.”

Recruitment and retention

It’s important to be aware of what motivates people, both in terms of recruitment and retention. Allinson says, “In the 80s, people were attracted by signing bonuses — this is less true today.” Pollack cites a PwC study that says millennials want training and development more than cash bonuses. The HRPA report encourages organizations to strengthen their skills training, promote mentorship (including reverse mentorship) and collaboration, offer flexible work-life options, and ensure salary rates are competitive where possible.

Nonprofits have an advantage when it comes to recruiting Millennials who are attracted to changing the world, notes Cran, while Termuende observes that the attraction is also based on the clarity of mission in contrast with many for-profit organizations.

While nonprofits with a flat leadership structure may think they can’t provide career growth, Termuende reminds them, “You aren’t trying to appeal to everyone. Be transparent and clear about your structure and what the organization is like, and you will attract the people who feel sense of belonging with your organization and who will therefore do better work and be more likely to stay.”

Communication and training

Many intergenerational challenges simply come from a failure to communicate. On the part of the organization, for instance, Pollack says, “I’ve learned over the years that what seems perfectly obvious to a Gen Xer or Boomer, like what time to arrive at and leave work, is a mystery (or a matter of opinion) to a millennial – and vice versa. On the idea of office hours, she suggests that, “While you might assume that everyone instinctively knows what office hours are, you might have to spell out acceptable in-office and at-home work hours for your employees.” Before eyes begin rolling about slackers, keep in mind that these same employees may be the ones who are most likely to be working at midnight on Saturday from their couches: Millennials tend to blur the lines between work and home more than previous generations.

Individuals also have a responsibility to communicate. “If something important to us isn’t naturally provided by our organization, don’t assume they are unwilling, but start a conversation and respectfully ask for what you need rather than simply leaving the organization,” says Lloyd.

While managers may find that Millennial employees may lack “eyeball-to-eyeball skills” (such as networking at events) because they have developed many of their skills through technology, Pollack reminds employers that training and development are high priorities for Millennials in the workplace – they want to learn and develop new skills. This may involve providing training on essential skills that could have previously been assumed in an employee, or simply discussing with an employee which skills they need to work on.


Millennials have been called “digital natives” but Cran says that technology is one key area where older employees and managers need to adapt to change. “If we don’t, we become irrelevant and have less opportunity to connect. This is not simply catering to one generation but part of a changing reality.”

Policies around technology also play a role in integrating generations, says Lloyd. “The assumption is that if a younger person is on their phone during a meeting, they must be on social media rather than taking notes.” She adds, “For millennials and those who have become comfortable with technology, policies that restrict use of technology are demotivating and the opposite of flexible.”

This doesn’t mean technology replaces traditional conversation. Termuende, himself a Millennial, says, “Technology is good and essential but it doesn’t replace traditional conversations. It’s important to make time to build less transactional and more meaningful organic relationships through conversation over coffee.” Other Millennials are recognizing the distraction factor with technology, says Cran, who advocates for generations to learn from one another, with Boomers and Gen Xers becoming more tech-savvy and younger people preventing technology from running their lives.

Lloyd observes, “A lot of what we chalk up to Millennials are actually good human resources practices that everyone wants. Everyone values a flexible and balanced work environment. This generation might have been the tipping point and might interpret these practices differently, but at the core, we actually share a number of values that we can incorporate into our human resource practices.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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Very pertinent, timely and absolutely essential presentation of one of the major obstacle to achieving discrimination and harassment free, peaceful, productive workplaces. A must read for the HR professionals, managers, decision makers, leaders and owners/operators of businesses.
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Thank you for sharing the article. I became increasingly convinced that we ignore this difference to the peril of our organizations.
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Great article Susan - I love how you affirm that we all must be responsible for taking this challenge on. It requires action rather than blame. I just watched this fabulous talk on the weekend from Simon Sinek. It reinforces your message and reminds us that empathy for each other is a key component in the generational challenge.
Simon Sinek: Understanding The Game We're Playing
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Thanks, Kathy. That's interesting, too, because I don't always find Sinek empathetic.
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Ha ha, Simon Sinek is actually arrogant. I love that about him. He's not afraid to be himself and use it to get his very powerful and passionate message across. But true, he doesn't have a lot of patience or empathy for those that aren't aligned with his mission. In this case, he seems to be on the same track as you ;-)
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I have my arrogant moments... :)
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