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How To Stop Viewing Workers Through A Generational Lens

Many conflicts with workers are quickly blamed on generational differences, but are they magnified today by the increased access to information sharing?

workersBoomers, GenXers, Millennials, and now the iGen or Generation Z. Sometimes we use these tags to describe differences in work ethic, technological acuity, forward thinking skills, and cultural shifts. But are we using generational labels as an excuse instead of looking past the label to see the person?

For anyone following my blog or reading previously published articles, it’s no secret that I believe “people issues” are the most challenging aspects of leadership in the corporate world. And these days many workplace conflicts are quickly blamed on generational differences. Are they magnified today by the increased access to information sharing? Are we using the latest article we read on the problems among generations to justify what may be a very opportunistic workplace disruption?

Here are four ways we can lose the generational lens to see deeper.

1) Recognize that generational differences are not new.

The 18th century writer and producer of the first English dictionary Samuel Johnson said “Every old man complains of the growing depravity of the world, of the petulance and insolence of the rising generation.” And 2000 years before that, the Greek poet Hesiod lamented, “I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words. When I was a boy, we were taught to be discrete and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise and impatient of restraint.”

It is easy to spot generational differences in the way workers communicate, how they adapt to change, and how far ahead of the curve they engage with technology. But do those slighter differences also give us an excuse to be jaded when things don’t go as smoothly as we expect? Jokes, cartoons, memes and articles abound today regarding the “entitled” millennials. But are they really different from generations before them? Are the generational differences more profound today than before, or are they simply more widely conveyed?

2) Focus on the strengths that come from different levels of experience.

Our firm, Elliott Davis, hires experienced talent and we also hire a large number of college recruits; out of some 800 employees across several states, 44% of our employees are under age 30. These new team members often come to us with a freshness of life – they bring energy, curiosity and imagination. They usually have not yet had time to get “stuck” in a rut, and they are often open to feedback. And, sometimes they bring what at first appears to be a wild new idea that can turn into something amazing.

Of course, experience is a wonderful teacher. Our solutions to challenges should become more and more honed and precise as we continue to confront those same challenges in different contexts over the years. While those with less experience may bring a sense of the freshness of certain challenges, those with more workplace experience may bring diagnostic and analysis skill based on years of past experiences. “I’ve seen this before” can sometimes be a comforting and helpful realization.

Nevertheless, excellent ideas are often born of the collaboration of differing concepts and different generations.

3) Acknowledge that hiring great talent is always going to be challenging.

Hiring new team members, no matter the age or experience level, is a challenge because so many factors are variables. Experienced talent can provide recommendations from past employers, but ensuring a cultural fit is never a given. The technical skills of a college recruit are based on test scores and grades, but those may not translate easily into hands-on applications. Indoctrinating a new employee is a matter of time, patience, and energy, but there are those times when in the end, it simply is not a good fit.

Sometimes employers will blame these failures on generational differences – boomers are using archaic methods while millennials feel entitled and do not come with a strong enough work ethic. But are these fair assessments or an excuse to justify what may simply be a bad hire? Finding great people is never easy. It’s hard, no matter the generation.

4) Hone your hiring process. Master the basics.

What can we do to ensure excellent hires no matter the generation? The answers are not new or innovative.

  1. a) Recognize that we can make mistakes when we hire people of all ages and experience Discovering and recruiting and keeping great talent — of any age — is a lifelong battle  for every great company.


  1. b) During and after the hiring process, focus on the individual, not the generation.


  1. c) Pursue excellence in the hiring fundamentals:

— Have a clear picture of your corporate culture and the specific values you seek in a candidate.

— Do all in your power to look at the past experience of a prospect and learn from their previous peers and bosses, while accepting that a hiring manager must be a little more creative in that review for those just out of college as there is less to review.

— Our need for speed in hiring often betrays us. Yes, hire with efficiency and dispatch, but follow a thoughtful, methodical hiring process, even if a candidate’s credentials seem promising upon first review.

Every generation brings its own set of talents and innovation to the workplace. Boomers may bring experience and wisdom, while millennials can bring multitasking skills, the desire to work in teams, and insistence on opportunities to make a positive impact on their communities. Their entrance into the modern workforce has resulted in changes that have benefited all including flexible schedules, more liberal time off policies, enhanced community engagement opportunities, advances in technology, and increased collaboration.

Do generational differences exist? Absolutely. We were raised by parents from different generations. We were exposed to diverse values. We grew up amidst various economies.

But if we choose to look at people through a lens that actually causes myopia, we need to place the blame on the eye of the beholder. It is time to lose that lens and see into the person, no matter the generation from which they hail. Only then can we have a clear picture of the potential of each of our team members – and the vision to understand what we can learn from them.

RelatedSkills and Experiences are Irrelevant when Hiring


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