Communicating Recognition Can Close the Workplace Generational Gap

By Mike Ryan, Madison Performance Group March 1, 2011

Even in an uncertain economy, people want more from their employer: career development opportunities, work/life balance and the chance to be part of an innovative company culture.

Most of all they want to work for a firm that appreciates who they are and what they bring to the table—one that shares their “personal mission statement.” Often, the context of those goals is driven by their age.

In the late 60s the “Generation Gap” was an expression used to describe age-related points of view that were often at polar opposites to each another. While not nearly as extreme as they were decades ago, competing generational values still exist in today’s workplace. Understanding them and how they impact employee mind-sets can help businesses and organizations motivate their people more effectively.

As the economic recovery enters a new stage, businesses that wish to retain their key employees should consider re-engineering their messaging. The aim should be to align their recognition communications to the employee’s values. Essentially, reconstruct content that reinforces expectations across workers of different ages.

Confronting the Divide

Baby Boomers want something different from their employer than their children (the "Echo Boomers"), who have different goals.

Boomer and Echo Boomer labor forces, in particular, are separated by decades of notable technological, cultural and historical experiences. The real distinctions are their unique value sets and how these influence what employees want and expect in terms of emotional compensation. While appreciation is always the common expression in any recognition message, communications should reinforce the emotional needs of each group.

Put into practice, this means that management must recognize inherent generational differences and apply recognition methods that resonate with each group. Here are some guidelines:


Echo Boomers

Respect their longevity to date. Time on the job is their equity but only if it is leading to the next accomplishment. They think they have “earned the right.” Think stature.

Build on their sense of self-reliance—become a partner in their quest for personal independence.

Boomers are competitive and want to triumph—find a “win” in every effort.

Recognize initiatives that assume greater responsibility—show how you are growing together.

Recognize their contributions as “leadership in action”—the attention will be appreciated.

Leverage their entrepreneurial instincts—be seen as the enabler and not an obstacle.

Reward them when they give back, whether by mentoring younger employees or through community service—employers compliment them by noticing.

Recognize them for “mentoring up.” Ask them to contribute skill sets or a perspective that current leaders lack. It’s important for them to feel they are part of the process.

Connect the dots between their contributions (new or old) and their stature in society. Remind them that success is mutual—for them and the firm. This reinforces their loyalty and their advocacy.

Be family friendly in tone—reinforce that you value what they value. Position the firm as part of their family and the job takes on a new dimension.

Ask them to stay mentally involved. Many Boomers are contemplating the next phase in life and might lose intellectual curiosity—show them that their work is still fascinating.

Find a way to listen. Feedback and social connections go a long way to reinforcing that they are shaping their own future.

Echo Boomers represent more of a challenge—and an opportunity—because they are an evolving group. They have witnessed economic shifts and have grown up under circumstances that make them hesitant to trust employers. At the same time, they are more open to connecting with new groups and are eager to embrace cohorts they identify with. Employers that position themselves as part of that circle—an important part of their lives and a source of growth and community—will be cracking the code with this group.

Generationally Tailored Messages

Effective employers have learned to segment messages efficiently—literally taking a “direct marketing” approach to communicating with their employees. As a result, their messages are relevant, in step with the employee’s personal ideals and highly effective at reinforcing the employer-employee value proposition.

Conversely, companies that are unsuccessful usually fail because they take a “one message fits all” approach to communicating recognition. Their messages do not resonate and become background noise for the employee. They get tuned out by workers and actually have the adverse effect—they reinforce that the employee and employers have little in common. That’s a fatal mistake, given that a sense of commonality—some call it mutuality—is what drives employee engagement.

Regardless of what generational category or segment an employee falls into, people like to be recognized. One of the key elements of successful recognition is the communication that personalizes the experience with a generational context. Organizations that acknowledge an individual in a manner that fits that employee’s values carry more weight with the employee.

Companies can leverage an employee’s desire to contribute and grow every day—and in the process reaffirm that values are shared between employee and employer. Strengthening that connection will drive engagement and solidify a firm’s position as the employer of choice—one that shares the unique standards, principles and aspirations held by all generations of employees.

Mike Ryan is senior vice president of marketing and client strategy at Madison Performance Group, where he helps leading companies and executives define program strategies that minimize costs, deliver a higher level of motivational impact to participants, increase planning flexibility for stakeholders, and offer the financial controls and projected returns that sponsors demand.

Related Articles:

Related Video:

Benefits for Gen Y. Nadira Hira, writer with Fortune magazine, offers observations about Gen Y employees’ views on job opportunity, loyalty and company benefits.

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SHRM Online Workplace Flexibility Resource Page

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