CHICAGO (AP) — As baby boomers delay retirement and work side by side with people young enough to be their children — or grandchildren — the quest for workplace harmony becomes increasingly urgent.
Put people of widely different ages together and there are bound to be differences. Baby boomers, for example, often are workaholics, and younger workers often demand more of a work-life balance.
The solution, say a growing number of companies: generational awareness training. Its goal is to foster understanding and better communication among workers, whether they grew up with hip-hop or Howdy Doody.
Employees are taught about the characteristics that define each generation — their core values, their childhood experiences, their cultural heroes. Then workshop leaders typically explore how those characteristics affect the strengths and weaknesses each age group brings to the job at hand.
The idea is that by learning why people of different generations act as they do, companies can better play to their employees' strengths and find ways to overcome weaknesses.
“The boomers say, 'Now I understand a little bit more of why they're always on their phones,' ” said Juergen Deutzer, who leads generational training at Scripps Health, based in San Diego, for about 200 employees a year. “Gen Y says, 'Maybe I need to be a little bit more understanding if someone doesn't get a grasp on technology.' ”
Companies downplay intergenerational friction as a reason for the training. They say it's more a matter of helping people of different ages connect, which affects group cohesion, employee satisfaction and the overall quality of work.
“There was no animosity, no aggression, none of that,” said Scott Redfearn, the top human resources executive at Protiviti, a global consulting firm based in Menlo Park, Calif., which began offering generational training this year. “But you really need the team dynamic to work well, because it's that collective genius of the team with all kinds of people, all kinds of background, all different generations.”
Before launching the training, Protiviti was seeing a high turnover rate among its youngest employees. An internal survey found those workers craved more guidance from their superiors. The company revised its performance review system, started giving employees more feedback and changed the way it used social media. And it began putting executives and managers through the generational training led by Chuck Underwood.
By next year, all new Protiviti employees will go through such a session, alongside more traditional training on topics such as sexual harassment, diversity and ethics.
Jennifer Luke, a 33-year-old Protiviti employee, attended two 90-minute sessions this summer.
“It's an awareness tool. You think about it if you're going to send an email to a client, for example,” she said. “You just take an extra minute or two as you're planning a project or communicating with a client to think about how you're structuring those communications.”
Gen Xers tend to prefer to work individually.
Boomers and millennials thrive in groups.
The oldest workers are known for loyalty and respect for authority.
The youngest workers are far more informal and global-minded.
Language and cultural references, naturally, vary widely by age.
Ingrid Hassani, a 58-year-old patient care manager at Scripps, said learning about such differences helped explain why older nurses might hesitate to approach doctors, viewing them “almost like God,” while younger nurses are “very comfortable to go right up and talk to them.”
Generational awareness also helped, Hassani said, when she found her younger subordinates were cutting corners in the hospital's 18-step process for giving a patient medication: Millennials tend to want explanations for everything they're told to do rather than just following orders, as older workers might.
“They want to know the why behind everything,” she said. “But once their questions are answered, they are fine.”
Lisa Williams, executive director of the University of Kentucky Institute for Workplace Innovation, said that when she held focus groups with local businesses to determine the most pressing issues for their aging workforces, generational differences dominated the discussion. Now she's working to get a generational training program started.
“Most of the time there was no conflict, but there were these islands of older workers and younger workers,” she said, “and they're not able to understand the others. So there's a lot of judgment.”
Training aimed at bridging generational divides is becoming more common.
Brad Karsh, of JB Training Solutions, holds about 150 sessions a year, half focused on helping younger employees understand older ones, the other half vice versa.
At a recent Chicago session, millennials got some good-natured ribbing during the discussion, for their perceived sense of entitlement, their constant desire for explanations and their discontent with entry-level tasks. Karsh gave away “I Love Millennials” buttons, perhaps to soften the blow, and noted that pointing out the flaws of a younger generation is “a time-honored tradition.”
He urged participants to see beyond the stereotypes, though, and said each generation brings strengths to the workplace.
“They're not better, not worse, just different,” he said. “What's important is understanding what those differences are.”