Baby Boomers. Millennials. Generation X, Y or Z. No matter what their title, each generation has its own unique characteristics and history. Some members of the current workforce grew up with shared “party lines” as their home phones; others cannot recall life without cellular phones. But despite the differences in age and experience, managers must be careful not to treat workers differently or assume anything about an employee based on their year of birth.
“Although demographics like these are worth considering, I worry about generalizations based on any particular category or label. Unfortunately, I’ve heard these rather wide classifications used as a way of excluding people who have a perceived behavioral pattern because they’re Gen X or a Baby Boomer or whatever the latest label happens to be,” says Rick Gibbs, a Performance Specialist with Insperity.
Despite popular assumptions that all Baby Boomers are fiscally conservative or all Millennials are technology whizzes well-versed in social media, the reality is that managers should be sure to manage each person as an individual, not a member of a certain group. Understanding the qualities typical of certain generations can assist managers with accommodating and motivating people with a wide spectrum of experiences and backgrounds, but such generalizations should not be viewed as absolute.
“[I saw] an interesting program where the idea of the new generation being better at multi-tasking was put to the scientific test. Although the youngsters themselves and others perceive greater ability in this area, the actual tests showed little difference or perhaps a lower ability in this area,” notes Gibbs.
Though much has been written about how to best manage workers from different generations, accepting such “generational traits” as gospel is dangerous. Any time workers are put into “boxes” by managers, there is a risk of offending an employee or creating a situation that may be construed as discrimination. Managers who use generational stereotypes to determine personnel decisions such as hiring, promotions, or assignments are violating the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) by making decisions based on a worker’s age.
For example, only seeking input from employees younger than 30 about a new social media project is discriminating against older workers. It’s also short-sighted. Many workers who grew up without the internet are now extremely knowledgeable about all aspects of social media. Don’t assume anything; ask.The best advice for managers is to respect, appreciate and communicate with all workers, regardless of which generational buzzword may apply to them. Respect workers for their skills, education and experiences. Appreciate the value that employee differences bring to your business; the strength of a team is often found in the variety of contributions from its members.
Communication is the adhesive that allows a group of people to function as an effective unit, so managers should be certain that they are using a variety of methods within the work unit. For example, some workers may prefer the interaction during a meeting while others prefer information communicated via e-mail.
“I was doing some research and saw a bullet point that said, ‘Coach the person, not the demographic’,” says Gibbs. “If the analysis is done with the idea that each generation may have traits that are positive and negative, and that a blend of all types of people is a good for everybody, I think it’s more useful.”