The Baby Boss - Working with Employees From Multiple Generations

by Bevan Graybill, YNPN of OKC Professional Development Committee Chair
Multi-generational workplaces are here. If you don’t already, soon you will be expected to lead people 3 to 30 years older than you.
Thirty-four percent of U.S. workers say they are older than their bosses, and fifteen percent say they work for someone who is at least ten years younger, noting a shift in the correlation between seniority and leadership (CareerBuilder). Baby Boomers are staying in the workforce longer, and members of Generation X and Generation Y are moving into more and more management positions. This article explores some of the challenges of the “young boss, older employee dilemma” and strategies for effectively leading an older staff.
First, consider how you view each generation. Baby Boomers were born 1946-1964 and are currently between 49 and 68 years old. Generation Xers were born 1965-1980 and are currently between 33 and 49 years old. Generation Yers were born 1981-2000 and are currently between 13 and 33 years old.
My view of each generation has been developed mostly by my personal and professional relationships with members of each generation. My parents, aunts, uncles, and most of the judges with whom I work are all Baby Boomers. I look up to them. These Baby Boomers are hard-working and seem to love their jobs. They have strict routines and enjoy some office camaraderie.
My older sister and a co-worker with whom I often collaborate are members of Generation X. They require structure and direction, but also enjoy working independently and at their own paces. My friends and cousins are part of Generation Y. We are all seeking a more than satisfactory career. We want to do something important. Because most of us were raised by Baby Boomers, we work under the belief that the perfect job awaits. For Generation Y, working is fluid. Instead of smoke breaks, we take Facebook breaks. Unfortunately, the dings and rings notifying Generation Y about a new e-mail or breaking news can distract us from the task at hand.
Have you ever been elated about a job offer or promotion, but then you asked yourself, “Did I trick them into hiring me?” Insecurity about whether you are qualified for the position may stem in part from your age. Attempting something new and the risk of failure are difficult—at any age. You might think a Baby Boomer or Gen Xer who has worked at the organization for ten years will snicker when they discover you were fifteen years old when Y2K hysteria took over the world.
We only get one chance to make a first impression.  Our youthfulness might make an instant impression. But let’s look at some strategies for making a lasting impression that transcends our apparent immaturity:
  • First, be professional. By maintaining professionalism, the staff will see your skills and knowledge and forget about your youthfulness. Professionalism is defined by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary as the skill, good judgment, and polite behavior that is expected from a person who is trained to do a job well. Maintaining relaxed body language and remaining calm and confident will assure employees their leader has good judgment.
  • Second, be confident when you introduce yourself and state your job title. As a first and second year attorney, I found discomfort in telling people what I did for a living. I would shy away or laugh when the words came out of my mouth. I felt like I was too young to be a lawyer. After all, every attorney I knew prior to law school was a Baby Boomer. Some people (myself included) have a tendency to downplay their work experience and professional accomplishments. You want to exude confidence, not arrogance. However, if you are not confident you can do your job, your staff will not be confident in you or the organization. It is important to remind yourself that you were hired because the executive director and board of directors believed you could be successful.
  • Third, express gratitude for the staff you manage. The staff is the organization’s number one resource and definitely a new leader’s number one resource. The collective knowledge of the staff is extremely valuable. Learn everything you can by seeking out information and suggestions. When asking for input from the staff, being sincere and a good listener is critical. For someone in your position, older employees with years of experience at the organization should be viewed as assets. Their knowledge and understanding of the organizational processes should be comforting, not intimidating.
  • Fourth, take time to meet with each employee one-on-one and get to know them as individuals. It will not take long to recognize which generations are represented in the organization. However, the generalizations you have made about generations based on your personal and professional encounters with members of those generations should not control how you treat them. It is unfair to limit someone’s ability to be innovative, collaborative, or hard working just because he or she is from a certain generation. Release these unfair assumptions about people and proceed with an open mind. Each staff member is an individual. A general understanding of what motivates the generations can be extremely helpful, but not every person will fit perfectly inside their generational sketch.
  • Fifth, communication is key. Many people suggest it is best to “over communicate” in a multi-generational workplace. This is because different generations prefer different methods of communication. Generally, Baby Boomers prefer face-to-face communication and Generations X and Y are more comfortable with text message and e-mail communications. Get comfortable using various methods of communication. Determine who participates in inter-office discussions through instant messenger, who keeps their e-mail open all day, who prefers a memo in the inbox sitting on the corner of their desk, and who prefers to speak face-to-face. Frequency of communication is another thing to think about. Some people do not mind sending or receiving ten, single sentence e-mails in one day. Others prefer one detailed update at the end of the week.
Many people may have concerns about working under a Generation Yer because they think he or she will be unrealistic, extremely laid-back, unprofessional and make unnecessary changes. The best way to get people to forget your age and view you as their peer or leader is to earn their respect. You earn respect by giving respect. Show respect by doing your job with integrity and consistency and by treating people fairly and with equality.
CareerBuilder (2012, September 14). Younger Bosses Managing Older Workers: Increasingly Common, And Rife With Conflict [Web log post]. Retrieved from articles/2012/09/14/younger-boss-older-worker-study-careerbuilder/