How to Handle Generational Clashes in the Workforce

As one generation nears retirement and hands the reins to the next, it can cause clashes and headaches for management--but nothing a little understanding can't fix.

As we get through another graduation season, another flock of millenials, or Gen Yers, will enter the workforce ready to take over from the baby boomers. But the down economy has kept this generation, and the generation before them, in the workforce longer than expected.

“Usually when one generation hits [retirement] age, they start to hand over the reins but with the [bad] economy they are staying longer,” points out Heather Blume of BTLD Consulting Services.

Four generations in one workplace can cause managerial migraines, as each generation approaches employers with a separate set of expectations.

“The phenomenon’s happened before,” notes Cam Marston of Generational Insights and author of Motivating the “What’s In It For Me” Workforce: Managing across the Generational Divide. “The newest part is there are so many different generations. There could be four or five as the result of longer lifespans.”

Each generation has a unique set of characteristics that highlights their differences in the workplace. While baby boomers typically expect to work their way up the chain through promotions, Blume explains that Gen Xers are more skeptical. “If we don’t get enough motivation or enough reward for our output  … we always have a situation [in mind] where we’ll be happy to walk away,” says Blume, who counts herself among this group. At the same time, baby boomers and Gen Xers believe Gen Y’s expectations are too high.

“Gen Y wants to start as a leasing agent and become a regional manager in 18 months,” points out Blume. “It’s not realistic, but they come from a generation that is hallmarked by people like Mark Zuckerberg and [others] who made millions before they turned 25.”

One of the greatest points of contention between the generations, says Marston, is the concept of who “owns” the employees’ time. While the older two generations believe their employers own their time, younger generations have the mentality that time is “rented” to their employers.

Communication and motivation are also contentious, says Blume.

“When you talk about communication in the office, Gen X … thinks that we need to know [everything] … If you try to hide it from us, we’ll figure it out,” she explains. Meanwhile, Gen Y, she says, “tends to think they know [everything] already because they expect the transparency that marketers have been touting for the last four years.”

Technology is another challenge between the generations today. “A lot of baby boomers that I talk to feel that now they are playing catch up, and they don’t like it because it makes them feel ignorant,” says Blume. “They just don’t have the same foundation in technology that the younger generation has, and that younger generation doesn’t have the perspective to see that. They say, ‘what do you mean you don’t know how to make a Facebook page? It’s four clicks.’ To us it’s four clicks; to [baby boomers] it’s half an hour and a headache.”

In the leasing office

Marston provides an example of how these interactions might play out in the leasing office. A baby boomer employee is inclined to accommodate the prospect’s schedule. A Gen Y worker, however, is more apt to enforce the office’s hours. Such a situation, says Marston, is a matter of misunderstanding; the boomer may become frustrated by the seemingly lack of commitment by the Gen Xer, while the Gen Xer believes that the prospect—and his manager—should be more understanding of his time.

Generational challenges also come into play around customer service in the leasing office. Gen Y workers are more inclined to move through the complaint to get to the solution, while a baby boomer wants to talk about the problem.

“My grandmother wants someone to listen as to why it’s important that her air conditioner gets reset,” explains Marston. “The millennial, in her first job, says, ‘I have a complaint from a renter; I need to quickly resolve it.’ They see it as good service. In the process, both of them, in their best intentions, think the other is rude.”

The collision between generations happens when the industry begins to examine employee turnover. Average turnover for leasing consultants is 54.6 percent, according to the National Multi Housing Council’s 2010 National Apartment Survey of Compensation and Benefits Practices.

In the apartment industry, moving someone up a chain is not necessarily in line with an employee’s skills, however. For example, rather than promoting a leasing agent to an assistant manager, Blume believes it is more beneficial to keep these employees, who have a particular skill set, as leasing agents and give them raises. “Don’t make them become a manager because it’s how you ‘grow your career,’” she advises. “Growing your career has to be the same as growing professionally. In our industry, those two things don’t line up, and that’s part of the reason we have such a generational divide in the workplace.”

Keeping the peace

The key to harmony in a multi-generational workplace is education. In the leasing office, managers need to educate their staff about generational differences and explain that the job is not necessarily to provide the service the worker would want to receive but what the resident is seeking, Marston explains.

Specifically for managing Gen Y, Blume advises finding a balance between how much you encourage and how much you push them. “If you give them too much encouragement, they think they are ready to move up,” she notes, providing her own experiences as an example of how a manager properly handled this problem.

“I was a savant of ideas, but I was always wanting to fill [my manager’s] office five, six times a day with a new idea we had to try right away. He gave me a notebook and said, ‘we’ll meet once a week and talk about your ideas. I want you to write them down, flush them out and come out with better [ideas about] how we would execute them.’

“As an employee, that gave me time to learn to think past the initial idea, to the effects of the idea, to how would we execute. For [my manager], it saved him time. He didn’t have to shut me down, and he got innovative, new ideas.”

Measure of success

Village Green’s philosophy of promotion-from-within encourages recent college graduates to begin their careers in the entry-level positions the Farmington Hills, Mich.-based company offers.

“For the most part you can’t get a degree in [property management], like accounting or finance,” points out Gerald V. Schulz, vice president of human resources. “Jonathan [Holtzman, Village Green’s CEO,] has done everything in his power to change that paradigm.”

Under its manager-in-training program, the company “hires people right out of college, with no experience in our industry [but] with fresh minds,” explains Schulz.

As part of its program, Village Green promotes quickly “to make sure that people feel recognized and rewarded for performance,” says Schulz, who adds that this applies to leasing, maintenance and management positions. “There is no timeframe; you can get promoted as fast as you want.”

Schulz credits part of this ability to promote quickly to the company’s growth over the past few years. “Because we’ve been growing, we need to hire new people right out of college to take positions at properties that are performing and move our senior people to new positions as we add assets,” he notes.

Of course, as each year passes and new graduates enter the workforce, the sense of immediacy only increases. “What they expect and when it actually gets delivered continues to be a gap that’s smaller and smaller, but I think that we are able to accommodate their needs very easily because we are a growing company,” he adds.

Like anything in this industry, the key to adaptation is education, and Schulz teaches a class on effective leadership. One of the greatest challenges for any company today, he says, is providing constant feedback—and recognition—to Gen Y employees. However, Village Green’s “entrepreneurial energy” makes this easy. “We all want results very quickly,” says Schulz, “so that whole notion of wanting something very quickly is sort of part of our DNA.”

Additionally, the company is more than happy to hear new ideas from its younger employees. In fact, the company seeks “Bright Ideas” on its website, selects an idea each month and rewards employees for the suggestions. Of course, for those ideas that are known not to work, Schulz says the key is honesty and open communication.

“Regardless of generation, if you’re open and honest with [employees], people can accept an answer of ‘no.’ In today’s world, you can’t have any secrets, especially with the Y generation. We’ve always had a philosophy that you just have to be honest with people and tell them what we’re doing, what we’re not doing and why.”

And if the numbers say anything, Village Green’s efforts are working. The company’s employee turnover rate was 21 percent year-to-date from 2010, according to Schulz, compared to 31.2 percent industry-wide, as reported by NMHC’s report.

To comment, e-mail Erika Schnitzer at