Managing the Generational Gaps

By Nikki Howell

I toured the Microsoft campus on a recent trip to Seattle with the Kansas City Chamber’s Centurions Leadership Program, and was amazed by the competition for talented programmers (typically, younger employees) and the lengths to which companies must go to acquire and retain such talent.

Microsoft’s massive grounds seem more resort-like than office-like, with restaurants and bars, free coffee bars, on-site spas and soccer fields (not to mention state-of-the-art collaborative work space). The diversity at Microsoft—including the huge influx of younger generations—brought to mind a variety of employment issues that many companies now face.  
Employers are beginning to recognize that generations “work” differently. Younger generations tend to prefer collaborative, team-oriented working environments. As an example, a Boomer may prefer working in her own office with the door shut, Generation Xers may prefer to communicate via instant message and email, and Generation Y may prefer to work in open work spaces in groups.  
As employers revamp offices to increase efficiency and productivity, there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution. Younger generations also tend to favor constant feedback, mentoring, and short-term rewards over long-terms rewards. Introducing these cultural changes to some Boomers requires sensitivity, so that employees do not mistake feedback for being singled out or picked on (or worse, discriminated against). While employment lawyers usually preach consistency, this may be one situation where managers would be better suited by tailoring their messaging so that employees feel motivated and inspired rather than targeted.
Although Boomers are staying in the work-force longer due to the struggling economy, increased health-care costs, or longer (healthier) life spans, the fact is that retirement of Boomers will create a mass exodus of employees that will be difficult for companies to replace in terms of institutional knowledge and experience.  
Human resources professionals have identified succession planning as a top priority in 2014. Succession planning involves identifying and developing current talent to fill future leadership needs. Done right, succession planning is invaluable. However, when employers start discussing employees who might retire, when they might leave, and who might fill their shoes, it is critical that those discussions do not include assumptions based upon an employee’s age or presumptions about an employee’s potential physical or mental ability to continue working.  
Nor should employers ask employees to commit to a retirement date. Done wrong, employees (and worse, courts or jurors) may view
succession planning as a conspiracy to force older workers into retirement to make room for promotions of younger employees.    
Despite their generational differences, one thing Generation X, Y, and the Boomers seem to agree on is the need for flexibility in work schedules. Many families now have two working parents, both of whom may need flexible working conditions to attend to family needs.  
In addition, these working parents are also providing care for their their aging (Boomer) parents in greater numbers than ever before. Rather than drop out of the work force completely, they may search for jobs that allow telecommuting or flexible schedules, which trigger a host of employment concerns.
On the wage and hour front, employers must ensure they are properly compensating employees for time worked, from the non-exempt employee who returns e-mails throughout the day and night to the exempt employee who works in some aspect while on leave. For a telecommuter working from her home in Kansas, is her Missouri-headquartered employer now doing business in (and subjecting itself to the laws of) Kansas? Employers must also look at how posting/notice requirements apply to home office environments.
Once an employer opens the door to flexible schedules for some employees, it may be hard to draw the line. While employers can deny these benefits for legitimate business purposes, they obviously cannot make decisions based upon protected characteristics such as race, gender, or age. Equally concerning, for employers who appear to play favorites with flexible work arrangements, it is not a far jump for employees’ concerns of favoritism to turn into a perception of unlawful discrimination, even if that was not the employer’s intention.  
Employers who charged with increasing productivity, “doing more with less”, and finding creative or low cost methods to increase employee satisfaction should consider adding diversity and inclusion training to the toolbox, including training aimed at understanding generational differences. An inclusive working environment not only produces better results, but it can also reduce the company’s overall liability from an employment law perspective.  

About the author

Nikki Howell is a shareholder in the Kansas City office of the Littler law firm.