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Managing a multi-generational workforce

Our CEO, Tom Gimbel, recently spoke on a panel for the Chicago Family Business Council with Chris Ruder, CEO of Spikeball and Mary Burns, Career Coach for MBA students at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. The trio discussed how to break down generational stigmas in the workplace, as today there are four different generations dominating our offices:  

  • Baby Boomers: mid 1940’s – early 1964  

  • Gen X: mid 1960s- early 1980s 

  • Millennials: early 1980s – mid 1990s 

  • Gen Z: mid 1990s – mid 2000s 


Here are a few highlights from the conversation:

How can managers build relationships with their multi-generational staff and better understand their wants and needs? 

At Spikeball, every employee creates a document entitled, “How I work.” This is shared with their manager and their team. It outlines their communication preferences – in person vs. email vs. text. It explains if they are a morning person or if you should leave them alone until 11 a.m. It shares how they prefer to receive feedback – in a group setting vs. private, etc. Essentially, it distills down into one document what would take someone a year or more to learn about their direct report. On the other hand, managers should do this as well for all of their new hires...lay out expectations, communication style, management style and how that employee can work with them. With all of this on the table, it should allow employees and managers to get down to business in a way that works for them.  

The other thing to realize is that managers can’t treat everyone the same. Each employee needs something different. What motivates one person might not motivate another. If you’ve ever read the book, “The Five Love Languages,” this is a similar concept in your romantic life. According to the book, every person has 1-2 core love languages – whether it be physical touch, words of affirmation, acts of service, gifts or quality time. Each person is different in how they convey love and how they feel loved. You may feel you are showing your partner love by taking out the trash or cleaning the house (acts of service), but how they feel loved is when you spend time with them (quality time). The same is true in the workplace. You need to cater your style to the person you are managing.  

How do you prevent generational stigmas from developing? 

Having generational stigmas and allowing people to perpetuate them in the workplace is like allowing employees to discriminate based on age, sex or religious orientation. It should not be tolerated. If managers are the problem, and are speaking poorly about a certain demographic, you need to address it. In the words of our panelists, “The Greatest Generation is never coming back. This is the hand you were dealt. You can either get on board or leave. We have a company to grow and a job to do.”  

The other thing to remember when explaining this to managers is that everyone processes information differently. Some people are audio learners, others are visual. Figure out their learning style. They may need you to create a PowerPoint and walk them through how to work with each generation and why we need each generation in our workforce.  

Finally, remember that laziness, entitlement and poor work ethic doesn’t discriminate by age.  

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