Collaboration in the Intergenerational Workplace


By Pamela Babcock August 2, 2011

NEW YORK—Millennials (those 18 to 29 years old) might be poised to transform the workplace, but organizational culture can hold them back, experts said during Working Mother Media’s 2011 Multicultural Women’s National Conference held here July 20, 2011. Yet they noted that there are ways to tap into the unique perspectives of the younger generation that can enhance the corporate culture and boost the bottom line.

During a panel presentation, Debra J. Nelson, vice president of corporate diversity and community affairs for MGM Resorts International, said that while there might be some friction between generations at some organizations, she thinks it’s “a healthy tension” a​nd that the recession might have created an equalizing effect. “There is a greater opportunity for everybody to get along in a more meaningful way because everybody wants to work,” she explained. “If the culture is saying that this is the kind of company that we are and we are evolving to be, then there is greater likelihood that everybody will come along in that respect.”

“Creating a corporate culture that emphasizes a ‘new normal’ will be what engages Millennials for the long haul,” Todd Corley, senior vice president of diversity and inclusion at Abercrombie & Fitch, another panelist, told SHRM Online after the session. “This generation is very multiracial. For them, this is normal.” He should know; the average age of Abercrombie’s 80,000 associates worldwide is in the 20s.

Generations at MGM

MGM Resorts’ diversity champion training, launched in 2002, was designed to “create critical mass so that you have enough people who are leading and following who can drive the culture in our organization,” Nelson noted. As of mid-2011, more than 12,000 employees have been trained.

Baby Boomers (those mostly in their 50s and 60s) account for about 29 percent of the 62,000-employee MGM workforce, Nelson said, while 52 percent are people in their 30s and 40s and known as Generation X. About 15 percent are Millennials.

The company’s 17 diversity councils, organized by property, arenot segmented by age. “We’re all in it together,” Nelson said. “For our culture, we’ve found that this is the best way for us all to learn and grow and understand one another.”

When MGM Resorts launched M life Rewards, a loyalty program targeted to guests but not employees, younger workers asked why they couldn’t participate. They said they too wanted special rates for friends and families and to know when there were open seats at shows.

That’s why MGM Resorts created M life Insider, a program geared to employees. “It’s something that resonated with the Millennials,” Nelson explained. “But it also resonated with the rest of the workforce.”

Abercrombie’s Approach

Abercrombie works to engage its young workforce in a number of ways, such as through its annual diversity champion award, given to 25 employees in 2010, out of 250 nominees. Winners were announced at the district manager’s leadership meeting. Corley said winners feel validated by their peers through such recognition, which he noted is a key driver for the young workers.

They also “feel publicly recognized, and they feel honored to carry a torch, if you will, about something that is important to them,” he added.

Each year, Abercrombie addresses diversity with a diversity challenge. The 2010 challenge theme was “If You Really Knew Me,” modeled after an MTV show designed to break down barriers around differences such as sexual orientation, religion and race.

“We said, ‘That’s who our audience is, they’re probably watching it anyway, so let’s use the concept,’ ” Corley explained. The company received more than 600 submissions, many of which echoed the importance of inclusion and working together. At the end, participants shared what they learned in writing, essays, poems, art and videos. Winning essays and videos were published on an internal Abercrombie site.

“It was a way to make sure that the conversation around diversity and inclusion is very real,” Corley said.

Do’s and Don’ts

Corley offered the following takeaways about young workers:

  • “If you talk to them in a way that is not authentic and not real and not in a way that is casual and cool, they’re not talking to you,” Corley said. Abercrombie’s Office of Diversity Facebook pagefeatures open conversations with associates. The first week it was launched, it had 3,000 fans.
  • “Figure out ways that decisions are being made that may be different than you are used to,” Corley said. “They may seem ordinary, but it’s an amazing opportunity for them to have their voice heard.” District managers used to drive Jeep vehicles but asked for “green” vehicles in the new crop of cars. The company now provides the Audi A3 TDI clean diesel.
  • Although this generation respects and responds to diversity, “you also have to make sure you measure it with them,” Corley said. “They want to know how they are doing. They are competitive and not shy about it.”
  • Traditional programs that many companies have found successful might not work for young employees. For this reason, Abercrombie doesn’t have employee resource groups (ERGs).

“You can’t put them in a group. … They want to be a family,” Corley said. “For them, having an ERG would be justreally odd.” He said a lot of employees could be in three or four groups because they might have parents of various racial or ethnic backgrounds. “They’re not going to lock themselves into just one,” Corley added.

Warning: Blind Spots Ahead

It’s important to be mindful of potential blind spots.

“This is a generation that is paying very close attention to you and your organization,” Corley said. “It might not seem like they are, but they’re also parallel thinking when you are concentrating on one idea.”

Case in point: Corley interviewed a young woman who asked if she could pull out her iPhone because she had some questions on it. “Many people might wonder if that is rude or disconnected to what I’m talking about, but no, that’s just where her information is,” he said.

The way one speaks to Millennials might be different from how one speaks to members of other generations, according to Corley. But if you don’t recognize “that this is their normal, then you’ll find yourself looking at them walking out and getting [what they want] somewhere else,” he said. “What matters to them the most is being engaged. We have to move them through the organization, and we have to speak to them in a way that makes sense.”

2011 Best Companies for Multicultural Women

During the event, Working Mother Media recognized the 2011 Best Companies for Multicultural Women. Cisco, Deloitte, General Mills, IBM and Procter & Gamble were honored as the top five in a list of 23 winners.

Organizers said 91 percent of the 2011 honorees appraise manager performance based on diversity; 40 percent tie multicultural women’s advancement to managerial compensation; 87 percent offer programs to help multicultural women chart a course of action within the company culture; and 61 percent offer career counseling for women of color.

To select the winners, an independent research firm evaluated nominees’ 2010 data about hiring, pay and promotion of multicultural employees, especially women. Recruitment, retention and advancement programs and the overall company cultures were considered as well.

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.


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