Employers would be wise to takeproactive measures both to stay within the bounds of workplacediscrimination laws and to capitalize on the benefits of amultigenerational workforce. (Photo: Shutterstock)

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It is a challenging time for employers. A look around mostworkplaces finds every generational label society relies on asbroad clichés: a boomer there, a Gen-Xer here, a millennial overthere, and some Gen Zs too. It's a dramatic departure from timeswhen the workplace was dominated by just two generations.

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Related: Forget everything you know about millennial and GenZ employee stereotypes

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This seems to be a byproduct of a couple of things. One, peopleare living longer, healthier, happier lives as a result of betteraccess to health care and adopting better health habits. Two, theAge Discrimination in Employment Act has had atleast some of its desired impact with employers keeping andretaining its older employees in vital roles as opposed to seekingways to shuffle them out the door.

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Yet unlawful age discrimination in the workplace persists as aproblem. In 2019, 15,573 charges of discrimination were filed withthe Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging agediscrimination. This was 21.4 percent of all charges filed lastyear with the federal agency. And the EEOC obtained $75.7 millionin economic relief in those charges.

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Avoid being part of those statistics by taking proactivemeasures both to stay within the bounds of the law and tocapitalize on the benefits of a multigenerational workforce. Hereare just a few tips to get started.

Set expectations

Every workplace practice has at its foundation a good,well-written policy. That policy has to be communicated to workersthrough handbooks, new hire orientation and periodic training.These are just the basics. Setting the standard for team building,overall respect in the workplace and avoiding age bias is verycrucial to avoid exposure to liability and having your workplacebreakdown along generational divides. While most workers understandthat race- and gender-based harassment and discrimination are nottolerated in the workplace, negative age-based stereotypes are notas taboo. However, they are just as unlawful and counterproductiveto business success.

Walk the talk

People learn from behaviors they see modeled more than they dofrom what they read or what they are told. And while paper-basedpolicies are great, they are just the starting point. Businessleaders have to set the example by showing up to trainings, voicingsupport of policies and, of course, managing in ways thatdemonstrate commitment to eradicating ageism in the workplace. And,they have to be held accountable when they fail to be theexample.

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It is also important to ensure that this respect goes both ways,and older, experienced workers should remember that they too wereyoung and new once. "Before you criticize the younger generation,remember you were once that age and now, as an older adult, areextremely grateful that all of the stupid things we said or didwere not captured on the internet forever for everyone to see inperpetuity, " says Jan Stewart, Vice President of Human Resourcesfor NHSManagement, LLC.

Trade stereotypes for employee engagement

It is easy for supervisors and managers to manage based on theirpresumptions about employees. One may assume that an older workerlacks the skills or interest to be effective at a technology-basedtask. Similarly, one may assume that a younger employee may lackthe "people skills" to be an effective face-to-face communicatorbecause of reliance on electronic devices. These are lazy andineffective ways of managing people, and they are no more laudableor lawful than when managing employees based on stereotypes basedon race or gender.

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Management must be challenged to do the time-consuming andsometimes hard work of actually getting to know their employees.Motivating and engaging an employee to do their best work onmatters that best suit them cannot be done without knowing thatperson's strengths and weaknesses, which are almost alwaysdifferent than those dictated through reliance on presumptionsbased on assumptions.

Release the stranglehold on career development

Make training and development opportunities available to allemployees whose job may benefit from the training. Too oftencompanies restrict such opportunities based on age, experience orhow long they perceive that employee will continue to work or bewith the company. At best, employees who feel their careerdevelopment is being stymied will leave. Others may feelunappreciated and stuck, and could even result in their resignation– thereby severely diminishing their contributions to the successof the organization.

Manage to strengths, not weaknesses

Know what employees are best–and worst–at doing. This is not tosay that employees should not be challenged to expand theirproficiency at tasks or only be allowed to do what they want to do.Still, constantly setting an employee up for failure by assigningtasks and roles that are not well suited for an employee's personalstrengths is counterproductive for both the employee and thecompany.

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Many experienced employees will have valuable, personal contactsand relationships in the industry. They will also likely have vastinstitutional knowledge. Younger employees may be more versed inthe latest methods and have valuable ideas about how to improveefficiencies and productivity. Both need to be respected andleveraged to the overall benefit of the organization.

Cross-train and share knowledge

Once individual employee strengths and knowledge can beidentified, it will become apparent that everyone should have atleast some familiarity and experience in those areas. Teambuilding, knowledge sharing and cross-training among employees arevaluable activities for companies, although many are loath to do itbecause it seems on the surface like a costly, time-wastingexercise. It does not directly result in the immediate productionof more widgets or whatever the organization exists to do. However,it has many long-term benefits for both the company andemployees.

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Having experienced employees' share their industry connectionsand knowledge with newer employees can help accelerate the careersof the younger employees. Similarly, having younger employeesactively engaged in sharing newer or more efficient methods canhelp more experienced workers obtain more job skills and stayrelevant in the job market. From a business standpoint, it is goodto have a more even level of performance and abilities amongemployees. Otherwise an organization can be crippled when one or afew employees who have hoarded valuable relationships or knowledgedepart.

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In contrast, constantly working in silos can create rivalriesand division over the course of time. This can ultimately harm theorganization and lead to behaviors demonstrating a lack of respectbetween employees, which is almost always the real root cause ofdiscrimination and harassment claims against employers. It is muchharder to behave boorishly to someone you know and respect.

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Recognizing the value of a multigenerational workforce is thefirst step to solving the workplace puzzle. It is not a challenge;it is an opportunity to develop an agile workforce and acompetitive edge. Every employee, regardless of age, can havesomething to contribute. But this culture is not going to establishitself. It has to be done intentionally and over time with focusedeffort.

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Thomas W. Scroggins([email protected]) is a partner in the Birmingham, Ala.office of Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophetee. Herepresents employers to defend against employee lawsuits, adviseduring union avoidance campaigns, negotiate collective bargainingagreements and design policies for local, regional, national andinternational employers of all sizes. 

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