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Generations at work

Business, Management | May 1, 2015 | By:

We’re not from different planets, though sometimes it seems so. There are ways to work together effectively.

When you interview that candidate, do you invite the parents? Forty- and 50-something jaws might drop, but executive recruiter Eric Herrenkohl says two of his big-company clients want to talk to Mom and Dad at the interview as well as to the prospect—especially when the candidate is a recent college graduate.

Welcome to the latest iteration of Showdown at Generation Gulch. We all know about generational differences in work styles and communication preferences. The latest wave in the workforce, so-called Millennials born since 1981, have their own distinct characteristics. They want constant feedback. They like working in teams. They’re used to parents hovering over them at school—and maybe at their jobs.

So why not interview the parents? Herrenkohl, based near Philadelphia, Pa., says young workers, not surprisingly, are “much more attached to their parents than are people in their 40s and 50s,” at least in terms of day-to-day decision-making.

Managers who stay aware of these differences may save themselves considerable time and trouble. Compared with Millennials, Generation Xers—born between 1965 and 1981—have different approaches to work, says Tammy Hughes, CEO of Claire Raines Associates, a consulting firm based in Bellevue, Wash. “Gen Xers tend to work by themselves,” says Hughes. Millennials “tend to want to work on teams.”

In short, with Millennials, managers likely needn’t strive to create a cooperative arena. It may already be in place. Hughes agrees that Millennials are closer to their parents than preceding generations, and used to ongoing feedback instead of an annual review.

Space suits
Generational differences can be worked out. Ted Southern is president of an aerospace garment company that makes space suits, or flight-safety garments. His partner, Nikolay Moiseev, is about 15 years older, a Soviet-trained aerospace engineer from Moscow, Russia. They met when Southern was an artist in New York City. “So there were not only generational but also huge cultural differences between us,” says Southern. “In fact, I initially saw all of our differences as cultural.”

Now, however, Southern thinks that the generational divide is “as deep as the cultural one.” Their firm, Final Frontier Design LLC, is in Brooklyn, N.Y., and has four full-time employees as well as part-time workers. Moiseev is a nine-to-five guy. Southern, age 37, might be a few minutes late in the mornings but stays past quitting time and works into the evening. “Originally it was hard for Nick to deal with, and also hard for me,” says Southern. “It’s been all about flexibility and accepting how people work, as well as mutual respect.”

The overlapping hours? “We say we’re open nine to nine,” quips Southern.

Face to face?
“Different generations operate and communicate in different ways,” Kisha Moldovan agrees, “and because I understand this well, I’m able to successfully coordinate and facilitate communication among a group or team.” She is sales manager and marketing director for Capital City Awning, with 33 employees, and Columbus Canvas Products, with 11 employees. Both firms are in Columbus, Ohio.

Typically, the older generation prefers communication face-to-face or on the phone. Younger people prefer texting, social media and emailing to communicate, sometimes at what an older worker might think is an inappropriate occasion.

“Younger workers tend to need constant feedback and positive reinforcement,” says Moldovan. “I also believe the younger generation responds better when they’re involved in setting their own responsibilities, goals and work schedules,” she adds. Older workers “prefer to be given responsibilities, goals and their schedules in advance,” she says.

What about Gen Xers with families? For them, Moldovan says, it’s “very important to create a work environment and reasonable expectations that will allow employees to maintain a work-life balance.”

A new breed
Maybe because the kids have to be at school, or maybe because that’s just the way it’s always been, older workers with families often operate on the principle that the work day is 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. “No exceptions, and you must be early, as well,” says Moldovan.

Younger workers assume a more flexible schedule. The good ones may not be as focused on time as they are on work ethic and productivity. “I’ve tried to reinforce the fact that we’re all a team, and we have to remember what might motivate one person and help them work at their best capacity isn’t always the same for everyone,” says Moldovan. “This goes back to constant positive feedback and open lines of communication.”

Millennials’ parents may have tended to include them in family decisions even as children. “Younger workers expect to be dealt with in a collegial manner,” says recruiter Herrenkohl. They’re used to it. When they were children, families asked them where they wanted to go to dinner and where to go on vacation. “Leaders who rely less on position and more on mentorship,” says Herrenkohl, “do well with younger workers.”

Nick Rivera, director of operations at MMI Textiles Inc. in Westlake, Ohio, is just 31 years old, but he’s a long-timer at the company. He joined the firm at age 22 and, by his account, came in routinely at 8:30 a.m., rarely left early and worked hard. He realizes that other young people have different habits: Come in late, leave early, lots of social media. He’s not faulting that behavior in and of itself. “The question is,” says Rivera, “are they working?”

Different communication styles notwithstanding, “I think some of the generational thing can be ironed out,” says Rivera, as long as people are “replying back to somebody and giving an answer.”
The question for Rivera is work ethic. What if somebody comes in a few minutes late? Takes a long lunch? The late arriver may be working as Rivera does—working via smart phone early and late. You’ll know by the results. “If you’re not working hard,” says Rivera, “then those things stand out, especially at a small company.”

And if you want parents at a job interview—it’s something to consider. Herrenkohl reports that a client’s chief information officer got a call from one of the parents after that candidate wasn’t hired. The call convinced the CIO that he’d made the right decision.

Marc Hequet is a business writer based in St. Paul, Minn.

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