5 QUESTIONS ABOUT GENERATIONAL WORKFORCE ISSUES: An Interview with Groove Management's Brian Formato

Generational Diversity

1) How did you become interested in generational work force issues? What kind of research have you conducted on these issues?

I began my working career in human resources as an HR assistant with Golden Books, the children’s book publisher. Golden Books had just celebrated its fiftieth anniversary around that time. Many of the members of the editorial staff were in their late fifties and early sixties and had been with the company for twenty five plus years. Golden Books was purchased soon after I arrived and what ensued was a cultural revolution. We added over 200 new jobs in one year. The majority of the new hires were young college grads. They new hires were running circles around the veterans, but their work ethic was quite different. The new generation of Golden Books employees were far more focused on immediate gratification. The defined pension plan was dropped in favor of a 401K plan with a company match because the company match offered a more immediate reward to employees and made the recruiters job easier in attracting top talent.

Many of the veteran employees took early retirement because they could not stand to see the company that they had devoted their careers to change so drastically overnight. What was left was a group of high energy amateurs that lacked the industry knowledge as well as the discipline to negotiate attractive deals with the writers. Golden Books after 50 plus years of entertaining children was forced into bankruptcy. The generational transformation that the organization went through as a revolution rather than an evolution was too much to handle and played a major role in the overall demise of the company.

After my time at Golden Books, I went to work for the AARP Pharmacy Service as a Director of Human Resources. At the AARP Pharmacy we were focused on delivering mail order pharmacy products to AARP members. The AARP Pharmacy was very focused on leveraging technology to cut costs and create efficiencies, therefore we were very involved in software development. Hiring programmers to come to work for the AARP was a huge challenge to overcome. Once again the generation gap became a hindrance to our business. How do you attract the best and brightest programmers to come and work for a company that caters to senior citizens as their customer base? Programs such as a 35 hour work week, great desktop computers and other cutting edge technology along with a snazzy recruitment campaign with the tagline “AARP Pharmacy Service: Your Prescription for Success” all helped us to overcome the recruiting and retention challenges.

My next job was with The Motley Fool an internet startup that has won numerous awards for their culture. The Motley Fool was a Generation Xers dreamland. With a game room with foosball tables, ping pong and video games the environment was very cool. Top school MBA grads and techies alike were drawn to the company. The Fool featured a cult-like culture where you either fit in or you were repelled immediately. There was very little age diversity at the Fool, which was a bit of a shame because our customer base was generationally diverse and we probably missed out on a number of opportunities. It was interesting to see that lifestyle, commitment to a cause and camaraderie were more important to the Fools (employees) than big salaries. I think this is a major misnomer about the new generation of workers. Salary maybe even less important to this generation. Affiliation and being involved in a worthy cause takes priority. People worked incredibly long hours at the Fool, not because there were rules requiring it, but because people were passionate about their work and really enjoyed spending time with their co-workers.

As one can see I have had three very unique work experiences that have all exposed me to the very real issues that can exist when assessing generational issues in the workplace.

Generation Gap

2) What do you see as the issue most affecting those who manage across the generations? And how can those managers meet that challenge?

There is a basic diversity challenge in managing across generations. Managers are subconsciously biased towards members of their team that are not like them. So if a manager is in her early forties, she is more likely to do an effective job of managing members of her team that are close to her in age. Managing a twenty two year old college grad would pose a challenge, because it is difficult to make a connection with someone who is at a totally different stage in their life and career. Checking oneself and being aware of our affinity for those that are like us is a huge challenge when managing across generations.

A manager needs to make a concerted effort to get to know the members of their team personally. Regardless of age it is possible to find things that one has in common. Leverage those commonalities to build rapport. Playing favorites can be a real mistake. The key is to treat everyone equally, but that does not necessarily mean to treat them the same. Allowing a young worker to leave early on a Friday to head out of town to a college football game and allowing a single parent to work from home on occasion are different ways of accommodating employees. The accommodations are different but the perceived fairness is about the same.

3) What should managers be aware of regarding generational differences in values, beliefs, and work attitudes?

Answering this question requires drawing some stereotypes about different generations. Stereotyping is a symptom of discrimination, so this is a dicey subject. A manager must be in touch with his or her own beliefs, values and work attitudes. Self awareness is the key to effectively managing generational differences. By understanding what motivates me and recognizing that my motivators will probably be different than other members of my team, I can more effectively find ways to boost individual and team performance. So the quick answer is self-awareness. Treat people equally but not necessarily the same is my motto here.

4) Please give some examples of how managers can help their employees across generations recognize and appreciate the differences in order to better work together.

I have done a considerable amount of work using “appreciative inquiry” which is a very effective technique when dealing with differences. Appreciative inquiry requires that we look for the commonalities rather than differences. It is an inclusive process rather than an exclusionary process. An activity that I have used with a new team to help them bond and to downplay the perceived diversity is to have each member answer a set of questions similar to the one below and then hold a discussion of the commonalities:

  • How do you like to spend your Saturday mornings
  • What was the last movie you saw
  • What radio stations do you listen to in the car
  • What CD is in your CD player currently
  • List your hobbies
  • Describe a great day at the office (what happened?)

The idea is to get people to see past the physical differences. Often we find that even across generations we have more in common than we ever thought. If we open our minds to learning new things we can learn from anyone. There is an old saying “Even a clock that does not run is right twice a day”. I think we just need to focus on the positives and learn to use the diversity as an asset. Diverse opinions typically lead to better decisions. Groove Management Consulting was founded on the principal that learning to identify and leverage strengths leads to better individual and organizational performance.

5) Do you advise organizations to use formal training for managers? For employees?

Many times I do feel that it is necessary to have a formal training program to help make managers and employees aware of the issues of diversity. I think it should be an inclusionary process that is delivered to managers and employees together, rather than having separate programs. This is an issue that is not going away and it needs to be addressed in all organizations. Training is an important step, but the leadership must embrace the generational workforce variety as a strength and use it to the company’s advantage. The workforce should mirror the customer base.