Do you have a workforce ranging in age from 20 to 70? Then your retention strategy should take into account all of your worker generations.

Too preoccupied with keeping that newly hired, iPod-listening Gen-Yer happy in your workplace? You’ll have to think big picture, says Adwoa Buahene, co-founder and managing partner, n-gen People Performance, a firm that counsels corporations on how to manage the generational differences that exist under their roofs.

According to Buahene, four distinct age groups currently exist in the workforce, all with their own baggage, career ambitions and, of course, expectations. “We always have to think about balancing out all four,” she says. “There’s a risk of just focusing on one generation instead of another.

“Organizations that just focus on Gen-Yers have Boomers saying, ‘Are we being put out to pasture?’ while the Gen-Xers are saying ‘What about me?'” she says. The end result for a company can be alienated employees, lowered productivity and a revolving door of staffers.

The Players

You’ll find Traditionalists in most workplaces. They’re the employees aged 64 to 87, whose devotion to the company and quest for a legacy likely supersedes any desire for change. This group is responsible for creating solid and stable organizations and they essentially set the tone of a company’s corporate culture. “We use them as a benchmark by which to judge other generations,” says Buahene.

The Traditionalists are followed by the Baby Boomers, aged 45 to 63, who feel that 70+ hour workweeks are the norm, no questions asked. Their goal, according to Buahene, is to “put their stamp on things.” They show organizational leadership, will go the extra mile and have likely stayed with the company for a long period of time.

Gen-Xers, those employees aged 29 to 44, value their independence above all else. Their loyalty can be questionable as they are always opportunistically seeking what a job can offer them, rather than the other way around, says Buahene. They can be a flight risk as many show loyalty to a manager, and if that individual leaves, they will likely follow. Worse yet, many can get their resumé dusted off and updated in 15 minutes flat, warns Buahene.

Last, but certainly not least, are the skittish Gen-Yers who have grown up in an environment where their opinions were sought and needs met. They are the group that sometimes seem like they want to call all the shots in the workplace. They are apt to work where their friends work and enjoy discussing all aspects of working life with astonishing candour: corporate culture, their salaries and hiring policies, says Buahene. “If you’re lucky, it’s not on their Facebook.”

Gen-Yers have also been known to last in a job for a very short period of time, if they feel that their own personal goals are not being met. “We have organizations where Gen-Yers are leaving within three or four days,” says Buahene. The ultimate goal for them is a fluid work environment that offers fulfillment in both a professional and personal sense.

So how does one manage these divergent groups? To begin with, Buahene says, a one-size-fits-all approach is not recommended.

“We need to find out what drives each individual to do their best,” she says. The optimal way to do that is to begin by assessing the needs of the generational groups within a given organization. And employers should forget about seeing the employee-workplace relationship as one-sided, favouring the company, says Buahene. While older generations, like Traditionalists, still view this relationship as, “What can I do for my company?” younger employees have a reverse, “What can the company do for me?,” mentality.

“Anytime we invest in something, we expect a return on that investment,” she says. “The difference between the generations is how long they will give you to deliver on the deal.”

Change is Good

Embrace change, whether it’s by becoming more transparent in your operations, implementing new benefit plans, creating a more relaxed work environment or through manager training. Companies should be updating and altering corporate policies to be more attuned to the various generational groups, says Buahene.

Training managers to be more people-focused is also important. Many, she says, aren’t versed in dealing with radically different employees, leading to a disconnect that can result in higher employee turnover. Focus on collaboration, communication and coaching, says Buahene. She recommends that managers work closely with employees to ensure their opinions are heard, career goals met and corporate expectations expressed. She also suggests that firms become more flexible in how they handle the different working styles of their staffers.

“Many of us still work in organizations where they say, ‘If I don’t see you, you’re not working,'” says Buahene. And that’s a mistake. While Traditionalists and Baby Boomers are comfortable with the 9-to-5 workday, Gen-Xers and Gen-Yers often expect to have more fluid working hours. They believe that if they get the job done on their own time, then they don’t always have to be at work, sitting at their desks clocking the hours, says Buahene. Altering the workday to suit these groups—by permitting them to start their workdays at different times or by communicating through such vehicles as teleconferencing—may be attractive to them.

Becoming more strategic in how a firm deals with its Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Gen-Xers and Gen-Yers will eventually lead to employee buy-in, but it’s an ongoing process that requires a lot of flexibility, warns Buahene. And she cautions that by no means do employees’ ages mean they nicely fit into one of the four categories. “We have to proactively manage expectations. Every member of your team has to be an investor in that organization.”

Anna Sharratt is a freelance writer working in Toronto.

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© Copyright 2009 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the June/July 2009 edition of WORKING WELL magazine.