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What Companies Are Getting Wrong About Every Generation

Maintaining a happy, productive workforce is much more than categorizing and catering to generational differences.

What Companies Are Getting Wrong About Every Generation
[Photo: Flickr user Beverley Goodwin]

In HR circles, the talk is of keeping the workforce generations happy and engaged. There hasn’t been an industry conference in the past decade without a panel titled, “Strategies to Attract and Retain Millennials,” or something to that effect.

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The trend is even more pronounced online. Our LinkedIn feeds have been inundated with articles such as “The 25 Companies Where Top Millennials Most Want To Work In 2014,” “Why Companies Should Care About Their Gen X Workers,” and “Best Companies for Baby Boomers.”

But in the actual workforce, the picture is more nuanced, and honestly, more important than one single workforce generation. Successful companies are woven from individuals working together in teams whose makeup spans the generations. They don’t revolve around one employee subgroup, despite what the headlines suggest.

Why We Cater To Workforce Generations

Many companies lack a strong employee value proposition, so they compensate with frivolous perks like casual Fridays or free concert tickets in the hopes they will appeal to certain employees. But these schemes aren’t long-term solutions. Worse, their existence signifies a failure to find common causes that unite the workforce generations, not divide them.

Take a look at what Universum recently cited in its annual Student Survey about what undergraduates value most in an employer. Among students who cited work-life balance as their number one priority, they immediately went on to list respect for people, secure employment, creative and dynamic work environments, professional training and development, and a friendly work environment as the five most important traits.

For HR leaders obsessed with their generational rankings, the Universum findings should stop them dead in their tracks. First, wanting work-life balance isn’t exclusive to university students. And second, the six traits that students value most in an employer can only be attained through programs with broad generational appeal, not narrow-minded gimmicks and incentives.

How To Broaden Your Company Appeal

Focus on your company’s common culture and sense of purpose, then highlight the work that you do to serve your customers and make the world a better place. Communicate a shared desire to see the enterprise not only endure but also thrive and prosper. And demonstrate that you treat all employees as adults–irrespective of their age–and view every potential hire and existing employee as a long-term fit and a full contributor.

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With that said, let me clarify by saying that I’m not calling for an end to specialized leadership development programs or suggesting that employee affinity networks be abolished. Instead, I’m calling on HR leaders to focus on programs that ensure business continuity and encourage employee maturation through exposure to colleagues of all ages.

At Abbott, we have a professional development program in which our younger workers rotate through multiple business divisions across the globe. Of course, this program appeals to Millennials, but it also benefits the business and our seasoned workers. Gen X and Baby Boomer managers tell us that they get great satisfaction from mentoring and report that they learn much from younger workers rotating through their teams.

On the other end of the spectrum, the same philosophy can be applied. Employers are increasingly gearing programs to older workers. According to the HR consulting firm Aon Hewitt, more than a third of U.S. companies are said to have evaluated phased retirement programs in 2013. While participants in such arrangements have to meet a certain age requirements, the purpose of phased retirement benefits the business and the workforce generations by ensuring a successful transfer of knowledge.

By focusing on what unites our workforce, we have witnessed demonstrable outcomes across the generations. According to research from Millennial Branding, more than 60% of Millennials leave their company in less than three years. At Abbott, approximately 75% of our Millennial employees stay at least three years, and many are staying longer.

For our more experienced workers, the results have been just as compelling. More than half of the internal auditors we have hired over the past 20 years remain at the company today. As any auditor will certify, that’s a substantial return on investment.

Critics to this approach are right to wonder if companies that do not tailor their programs to a particular generation are just taking the easy way out. It’s a fair point to make, but I argue that it’s more difficult to create a company culture whose appeal transcends workforce generations than it is to buy into generational stereotypes.

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We all feel as if our generation is the greatest. But when leaders let that opinion affect their decision-making, they automatically expect less of other generations. For a company to succeed, workers of all ages have to come together and function at a high level, which is a point that’s been overlooked amidst all the coverage around the workforce generations.

At the end of the day, what all employees want is for their employers to be up front with them about what it takes to build a career and succeed. Regardless of their age, employees deserve to be challenged, have the opportunity for career growth–or even multiple careers–within the same company, and be given equal opportunities to be financially secure today and in retirement. That’s a proposition that can unite all the employee generations.

Stephen R. Fussell is executive vice president, human resources, at Abbott. He leads a workforce of approximately 69,000 employees in more than 150 countries.

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