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When Junior's in Charge

Conflicts between older employees and younger supervisors are bound to increase as boomers keep working. Having the right programs and policies in place can help stem that tide.

Monday, February 7, 2011
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Deborah Russell knows all too well how pervasive and explosive conflicts between older workers and younger supervisors can be. As the director of workforce issues for Washington-based AARP's Education and Outreach Department, she often hears from disgruntled older workers directly -- before and after age-discrimination lawsuits are filed.

She sees, up close and personal, the nation's shifting workplace demographics, with baby boomers staying in the workforce -- by choice, necessity or both -- and Gen Xers and Yers, "coming in and really mixing things up," she says, with their bent for technology and direct, sometimes irreverent, communication.

"The differences between the ages are even more pronounced depending on the profession or the industry," says Russell. "Like in retail, you have younger people working for a few years and, all of a sudden, they're managing people their parents' ages. You have older, long-time employees working there part-time by choice, and all of a sudden, a person in their 20s is their boss."

In fact, it was in a retail setting, Russell recalls, where a recent problem evolved that could have been avoided. "A younger supervisor, probably not thinking, was calling his older employee 'Gramps' or 'Pops' and the company, and the supervisor, both ended up as defendants, charged in the employee's age-discrimination lawsuit.

"Had there been the right kind of sensitivity and management training," she says, "the whole case never would have existed."

The problem is, too few companies are taking the proactive route when it comes to training, coaching and managing these very different age groups. And this problem is rearing its head in many ways, not the least of which is the growing number of age-discrimination lawsuits on file with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Records from the Washington-based agency show the number of charges filed under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act rose from 14,141 in 1999 to 22,778 in 2009. Most cases cite unfair terminations and failures to hire. Many also cite harassing references to employees' ages and younger managers' failures to promote older workers or accommodate their work/life needs.

So pressing is this bubbling cauldron that Russell, as well as people in legal and government roles, testified in November at a meeting of the EEOC in Washington to discuss the impact of today's economy on older workers and the increasing cases of age discrimination. (See story.)

A recently published book by Peter Cappelli, professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, and Bill Novelli, former CEO of AARP, entitled Managing the Older Worker, cites equally compelling proof that many companies are not doing enough to ensure older workers feel respected by their often-younger managers.

Even as far back as 2002, they note, an AARP/RoperASW survey, Staying Ahead of the Curve, found a full 67 percent of people between the ages of 45 and 71 said they had seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace.

More recently, they write, a 2006 joint study by Buck Consultants, Corporate Voices for Working Families and WorldatWork entitled The Real Talent Debate: Will Aging Workers Deplete the Workforce? found "an incredible 88 percent of employers worried about [conflicts between older workers and younger supervisors], and nearly 60 percent of HR managers at large companies saying they've seen significant office conflicts that flow from age-related differences between workers, much of it centered around older subordinates and younger managers."

Numerous other studies and scenarios cited in the book underscore this conflict, in which younger supervisors penalize and discredit older workers based on false assumptions -- they're less committed; they're "retiring retirement" for the money, not the work; they're uncomfortable with new technology; they cost more and need more in training and healthcare dollars; they're stuck in the old ways of doing things -- all of which the authors discredit.

(Actually, they admit older workers do cost more in healthcare dollars and take slightly longer than younger workers to learn new technology skills, but they argue that the rewards of their experience, knowledge, desire to work, commitment and performance outweigh the expense.)

"The amount of misinformation about older individuals -- older workers in particular -- is truly stunning," says Cappelli, "as is the amount of outright discrimination."

How should HR address this growing problem? Training both age groups to work together respectfully is a huge start, the authors say.

Equally important, adds Cappelli, is the need to realign HR's list of top concerns. "I would begin," he says, "by suggesting we take half the energy currently being spent trying to figure out Gen Y, Gen X, millennials and every other 'flavor-of-the-month' name for young workers, and direct some of it to understanding the much bigger and permanent labor pool made up by older individuals."

A Growing Challenge

Indeed, the American workforce, private and public, is getting older. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median age of the U.S. worker in 2009 was 42 years, the highest in history. By 2014, according to BLS' Labor Force Demographic Data, nearly one-third of the total U.S. workforce (32 percent) will be 50 or older, compared to 27 percent in 2005.

At the same time, millennials are today's fastest-growing segment and will, this year, account for 25 percent of the workforce, up from 15 percent in 2006, according to the BLS.

What's more, many more well-schooled and tech-savvy Gen Xers and millennials will be vying for, and taking on, leadership positions in the next decade, while many aging employees -- whether preferring or needing to work -- will be opting to finish out careers in current jobs or ones with reduced responsibilities and more flexible schedules -- this, according to AARP's recent Baby Boomers Envision Retirement II: Survey of Baby Boomers' Expectations for Retirement.

What all this points to, says Russell, is that "it's highly likely you're going to have someone in their 20s managing someone in their 50s or 60s." And unless you catch it early, those generational differences could soon be catapulting you to a defendants' list in an age-discrimination lawsuit.

Cappelli says there are two attitudes driving younger-supervisor discrimination: "One is that older workers don't perform well," which his book and research disprove. The other, he says, "concerns the idea that it will be hard to supervise older subordinates; some of this is fear on the part of the younger supervisor."

David Lewis, president and chief executive of Stamford, Conn.-based OperationsInc., an HR consulting firm, concurs. He says he's seeing "more of a separation" and growing conflict between the two factions among his clients.

"There's a real tough dynamic going on right now," he says, "with young people who were brought up on technology and have plenty of time to progress in their careers supervising people their parents' and grandparents' ages -- many of whom accepted lesser roles to survive the economy and put off retirement -- who now feel time running out.

"The older ones resent taking orders from those who haven't been there long enough to understand the culture and the history and why things work the way they work," says Lewis, and the younger supervisors, "who were taught to respect their elders -- and, in many cases, came into their positions at lower salaries than their senior predecessors as part of cost-cutting initiatives -- fear that resentment."

Overcoming Fears

Rene Duplantis, 28, can relate to that fear. He was 23 when he was promoted, in 2006, from field engineer to project manager at Barriere Construction Co. in Metairie, La. A 2004 graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in construction management, he was suddenly in charge of a superintendent, a field engineer and five foremen -- all men he'd worked alongside since interning in 2003, all ranging in age from 30-something to late 60s.

"It was a little scary," he says. "One of the guys I was suddenly in charge of was known to always be right and confident [and was taking on responsibilities outside his role without asking]. It was uncomfortable for me; he still does many things I can't do. I think it was uncomfortable for him, too."

With help from Bruce Tulgan's "Back to Basics" program, which promotes keeping the focus on the work at hand and not the differences between workers, Duplantis was able to gain his group's respect by thoroughly explaining what was expected in every assignment and, in turn, respecting and learning from his subordinates. (See here for more on Tulgan's program.)

"Just because I became the boss," Duplantis says, "I couldn't have the attitude that, 'This is the way it's going to be.' I had to learn to respect [the over-zealous worker] and learn how to tell him what he could and couldn't do."

George Wilson, Barriere's president, says Duplantis is one of about six supervisors of workers older than themselves at his 435-employee company, which isn't surprising when you consider the enhanced skills in construction management and computer technology today's college graduates have. Their skills, he says, "are sometimes better than superintendents' ... ."

By the same token, says Toni Talluto, Barriere's CHRO, "a lot of our older workers [two over 65 and many between 50 and 65] have a lot of skills the younger ones don't have," so the company encourages -- through seminar-focused training -- the two-way work-focused "Back-to-Basics" dialogue in which managers learn to be clear about expectations and direct reports learn to speak up when clarification is needed.

Tulgan says his program also teaches older workers "basic skills in how to get feedback from younger supervisors and how to play the [direct-report] role in this relationship" without assuming a superior attitude or feeling uncomfortable because of the age difference. "There really are best practices here," he says. 

As for younger-supervisor discomfort, Duplantis' story is something Katie Jacoby Stockwell, 28, can also relate to. When she was promoted to cost analysis and finance manager at Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine Accounting Service Center a little more than two years ago, she felt "some intimidation and tension," she says. Suddenly, seven of her co-workers, ranging in age from early 40s to early 60s, were now her direct reports.

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"I really struggled with it," she says. "I kept thinking, 'How can I give guidance to someone my mother's age?' "

Luckily for her, Cornell, which topped the AARP Best Employers list in both 2008 and 2009, is a big believer in the power of manager training. What Stockwell learned through an initial five-day off-site program and a four-day on-site follow-up session, both run through Cornell's own Harold D. Craft Leadership Program, was that "it's all about the respect," she says, "and it goes both ways."

"I was chosen as a leader for a reason," she says, "and it was up to me to establish I had certain skills that they could look up to, but each individual had something of value to offer as well. You learn to establish common ground.

"Craft taught me I have two choices -- that I can honor the person I'm giving feedback to or I can make them an object and treat them superficially," says Stockwell. "That's probably had the most profound impact on me -- that, before I give feedback, positive or negative, I choose to honor them in the process."

Cornell is also teaching its new managers to think in terms of outcome-based work, says Mary Opperman, the school's vice president of human resources.

With a growing number of its some 10,000 employees over the age of 55 and an increasing number being supervised by younger people, "we now have an environment where [both sides] want flexibility in their workplaces," she says, referring to millennials' well-documented push for less-structured schedules and meeting places, and older workers' desires for the same, "so we're focusing on training our leaders to think more, and talk more, about how work gets done."

Culture of Inclusion

At First Horizon National Corp., a Memphis, Tenn.-based financial institution, training supervisors to respect older workers talents and needs, and vice-versa, is such an integral part of the culture, it has a name -- Inclusion Training -- and the CEO is often involved in discussions about it.

"Our culture is our brand," says John Daniel, First Horizon's executive vice president and CHRO. "We call it First Power, which means employees are first, in the sense that every business decision we make, everything we do, we do with the employees in mind."

One of the most important anchors of First Power, says Daniel, "is our Inclusion Training, where we address, with every new [and often young] manager, the shifting demographic" that finds so many of them supervising their elders.

"We impress upon them how deserving these older workers are of their respect because most of them have been here their whole careers," Daniel says. "My job is to make sure the culture keeps adapting to this new reality."

Ken Bottoms, First Horizon's senior vice president of executive compensation and development, says the focus of the training, and the culture for that matter, "is to not let any differences -- gender, race, age, religion -- interfere with the job; to realize and accept that it's actually productive and positive to have a variety of perspectives. You come out with a better product."

Managers are also trained, in a program called Prime Time, to come to agreements with employees on schedules that will work best for them in whatever life situation they happen to be facing. (At First Horizon, employees can work just 30 hours a week and still collect all their benefits.)

"We train them to deal with this new kind of management in this very accommodating environment," Bottoms says. "We bend over backwards to make it work for the employee."

Bottoms, 65, is even on the receiving end of this high regard. Hired at 59 as First Horizon's vice president of total rewards, he turned that title over to his successor last July so he could take on his current role until his third and, as he describes it, final retirement. Bottoms thinks that'll be at the end of 2011. He plans to move to a four-day week in January, but even that's not set in stone. What is definite is that he gets to decide.

Many other organizations on AARP's list -- such as Cornell, National Institutes of Health, Central Florida Health Alliance, Campbell's Soup, CVS, Xerox, Pitney Bowes, SC Johnson -- the list goes impressively on -- are equally proactive in making flexible schedules and part-time health benefits available so older workers don't feel forced to seek alternatives outside their walls.

But requiring the training and establishing the culture needed to bring younger supervisors and older workers together on the same team page are still fairly new corporate practices. The generational gap, says Novelli, "will probably get worse before it gets better as older people remain in the workforce."

Still, he says, "I have faith this will evolve just as the dynamic of women in the workforce has evolved."

"Both sides have to give," says Novelli. "Younger supervisors absolutely have to learn how to recognize the value and contributions of older workers and older workers need to accept that things don't have to be done the way they've always been done.

"This is not rocket science," he says. "Companies are going to figure this out."

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