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Small Business Digest


Incoming Generations of Workers Need to Be Managed Differently

If companies are to be successful in managing the incoming generations of employees, the companies will need to recognize the values and attributes that each generation brings to the workplace. 

Companies must also accept that a different work ethic is not necessarily an inferior work ethic.

According to two experts, this is a first step. 

Doug and Polly White argue company managers need to develop programs and strategies that will allow organizations to leverage the positive qualities of each generation to the benefit of both employer and employee.

The Whites report that they are often asked, “How do I improve the work ethic of my younger employees?” 

They feel it is a difficult question to answer. “We are all a product of our upbringing.  We are shaped by the parenting norms of our generation, as well as the events, people and issues that influenced our early years,” they say.

“As such, generational groups tend to have different norms and behaviors that impact the workplace both positively and negatively,” they add.

According to the Whites, the truth is, each generation believes that its work ethic is “better and/or stronger” than the work ethic of subsequent generations.  It is also true that each generation believes that its work ethic is sufficient and appropriate for the time.  Therefore, a better question might be: How does a company recruit, retain and motivate younger employees? 

Both authors say they are proud members of the baby boom generation (born from 1946 through 1964) and define “younger” as those workers from Generations X and Y. 

Generation X, identified by the Whites as those born from 1965 through 1978 (some others would say 1979), has been described as independent, tech-savvy, pragmatic and competent. 

Experts attribute much of their independence to the latchkey experience that many from that generation shared.  Xers were often raised by single parents or by parents who both worked outsides the home. 

This change in parenting norms helped to create a generation that is more self-managing.  In addition, these early experiences caused Xers to strive for the work/life balance lacking in their workaholic boomer parents. 

These experiences also may color Xers’ feelings toward their employers.  Members of this generation tend to change jobs frequently – every three to five years.  They are inclined to be free agents and distrust corporate motives.   

To recruit, retain and motivate Xers, the Whites propose that companies first appeal to their need for balance: 

  • Develop family-friendly programs that offer flexible schedules, telecommuting and job-sharing. 
  • Encourage their independence and ability to manage multiple priorities. 
  • Remove bureaucracy and tenure-based rewards, but don’t remove yourself.  Xers crave feedback, especially from their boss. 
  • Spend personal, one-on-one time with these employees to create relationships and foster trust. 
  • Emphasize their accomplishments and results over methods and how they got there.  Include them in decision-making; they are problem-solvers.
  • Finally, if you want something done, give it to an Xer.  They have been self-managing from a young age.

Generation Y, born between 1979 and 1994 (sometimes stated elsewhere as from 1980 through 1994), is most often labeled as entitled, impatient and outspoken with an inability to take criticism.  Gen Yers also:

  • Are deemed to be high-maintenance, but many experts agree they may have more potential than any previous generation. 
  • Grew up with instant gratification, devoted parents and the “everyone gets a trophy” mentality. 
  • Are adaptable and flexible, which they need in order to deal with the ever- increasing rate of change. 
  • Gen Yers are not just technology-savvy; they are technology-sophisticated.  
  • Finally, although they have seen corruption in their sports heroes, business leaders and even their president, they continue to believe that they can and will change the world for the better.

To keep the best of Generation Y at the company’s workplace, it will need to offer flexibility and fun. 

The Whites go on to say, “While we believe the truth of this statement, just writing this raises the hackles on our baby boomer backs.” 

However, organizations that hope to be successful in attracting and retaining Ys will need programs that support an even higher level of work/life balance. 

They may need short sabbaticals to pursue personal interests.  In addition, the company will need to offer the latest technology.  If a reader thought the three- to five-year tenure for Generation X was short, Generation Y’s is proving to be even less. 

The best of this generation are looking to move up fast and will stay with organizations only if they can see and attain their goals quickly. 

Therefore, management should share possible career paths with Ys openly and often. 

Management will need to give Ys a lot of positive feedback and, only after gaining their trust, coach them on the value of constructive criticism. 

Finally, Generation Y looks for and values organizations that are good corporate citizens.  Support their causes and allow employees to contribute and participate.

Doug and Polly White are principals at Whitestone Partners, a management-consulting firm that helps small businesses build the infrastructure they need to grow profitably. They are also co-authors of a new book, Let Go to Grow; why some businesses thrive and others fail to reach their potential (Palari Publishing 2011). It is available at   

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