Guest Column | August 27, 2019

Age Is Just A Number: Managing A Multigenerational Workforce

By Pamela Williams and Lariza Hebert, Fisher Phillips

Workforce Management

Multigenerational Workforces Are In Every Industry

While, to many people, age only matters when it comes to wine and cheese, it is without doubt that age is becoming more of an issue in the workplace. There are more generations represented in the workforce than ever before. In fact, the workforce currently comprises five generations: the Silent Generation (born before 1946), baby boomers (born between 1946-1964), Generation X (born between 1965-1980), Millennials (born between 1981-1998), and Generation Z (born after 1998). The youngest within the Silent Generation are 72 years old; however, this group constitutes 2 percent of the U.S. labor force. On the other end, there are more than 76 million millennials making up 35 percent of the workforce – the largest share. Millennials have represented the majority of the workforce since 2016.

Retail employers are typically staffed by younger workers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average age of retail workers is 37.8 years old, significantly younger than the average age of workers in other industries (42.2). The largest working retail age group is 25-34. Even though the retail industry employs younger workers on average, the retail industry, like all other industries, is aging.

Each generation is subject to its own stereotypes. For example, some supervisors believe that millennials lack loyalty and are constantly changing jobs, which results in their reluctance to hire and train this age group. However, studies from the Pew Research and show millennials change jobs less than previous generations did at the same age.

While the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reports that about 10,000 baby boomers retire each day, the cost of living and inadequate retirement savings makes forecasting retirement unpredictable. Thus, the generational differences in the workforce are not likely to change any time soon.

The Age Discrimination In Employment Act

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) is a federal law prohibiting age discrimination in employment. The ADEA applies to employers with 20 or more employees and protects employees and applicants who are 40 or older.

In 2018, age discrimination claims totaled over 22 percent of all charges of discrimination filed with the EEOC, a number that has remained consistent for the past 10 years. Alleged discriminatory firings were the most common age discrimination charges. Other types of age complaints are now more common than they were in the ’90s; for instance, age-based harassment claims tripled between 1992 and 2017, from 6 percent to 21 percent.

Absent direct evidence of discrimination, to establish a claim for age discrimination under the ADEA, an employee must show that (1) they belonged to a protected age class (i.e., 40 or older); (2) they suffered an adverse employment action; (3) they were qualified for the position; and (4) they were either i) replaced by someone outside the protected class, ii) replaced by someone younger, or iii) otherwise discharged because of their age.

Age claims tend to surface when there are layoffs or a reduction in force, or when the company has a policy affecting older workers, such as a mandatory retirement policy.

To avoid the unnecessary expense – both tangible and intangible – of defending an age discrimination claim, the most important and obvious rule for employers to live by is to treat all employees the same, regardless of age. This means that performance goals and standards, discipline, and compensation must be applied equally, and based upon legitimate, measureable factors such as productivity.

Similarly, employers must be mindful – particularly in the retail industry where younger workers monopolize – to make hiring decisions regardless of age. Hiring decisions must be made on the applicant’s qualifications, skills, experience and merit, and not age (or any other protected class). Moreover, decisions concerning employee separation must be based on, and should be supported by, legitimate reasons.

Common Challenges And Tips On Managing A Multigenerational Workforce

A multigenerational workforce is an overall positive cultural investment but carries unique challenges. Twenty-somethings new to the workforce have different goals than those who are in their 70s and nearing retirement. People of diverse ages who are in various stages of their career are motivated in different ways. To reach the entire workforce, managers should consider how best to communicate to the workforce.

Studies have found that the most common issue in managing older and younger workers is communication, or specifically, communication styles. It is only logical that various generations have different styles of communication. Millennials and Generation Zers tend to be less formal with their communications than older generations, i.e., use of abbreviations, texts and emojis. Naturally, older workers may find certain types of communication to be too informal and inappropriate. Employers should set parameters regarding the form and style of communication acceptable in the workplace. Such policies may circumvent strife between workers of various generations. Similarly, employers should communicate with employees in a way that is suited to all generations.

Along these same lines, older workers may be less familiar with some IT platforms and equipment, which of course, are constantly evolving. Therefore, to ensure success of all employees in a multigenerational workforce, employers should tailor their training on software and technology systems in ways that are beneficial to all workers. In doing so, employers must be mindful of the different experience levels of all employees to ensure proper communication and comprehension of training materials. This may include considerations regarding live versus online training, handouts and written materials, etc.

The importance of work flexibility may also vary among generations. Younger workers may have an expectation of schedule flexibility, whereas the Silent Generation and baby boomers are frequently more accustomed to working a 9-5 job. Similarly, younger workers may be accustomed to communicating 24/7, while older employees could be reticent to be contacted outside of their scheduled work hours. Employers need to be mindful of these generational differences and clarify policies and expectations at the time of hire in order to guard against unforeseen frustrations that could negatively impact the employment relationship.

A supportive and positive corporate culture is vital to ensuring the success of a multigenerational workforce. Employers should strive to create a culture that is inclusive and respectful of all workers. This effort may include after-work activities that are enjoyable for all generations, as well as the day-to-day culture the company projects.

Negative stereotyping from younger and older generations is almost inevitable and can lead to internal organizational discord. Employers should combat this issue head-on and encourage workers to stop making distinctions between themselves and understand and respect the value of each individual worker. Communication is the key to managing a multigenerational workforce as it can help identify issues and concerns, which might otherwise fester into legal claims.

About The Authors

Pamela Williams, Fisher PhillipsPamela Williams, a partner in the Fisher Phillips Houston office, has more than 20 years of experience handling labor and employment litigation matters in arbitration, as well as state and federal courts.

Lariza Hebert, Fisher PhillipsAn associate in the Fisher Phillips Houston office, Lariza Hebert represents clients in a broad range of labor and employment matters.