Human Resources in the Era of Age Stereotypes

Scott Francis
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Last week I was honored to be invited to participate in a panel discussion at the AHRMA Workforce Readiness Day 2015 conference.  Especially honored because I am not, technically, an HR professional.

Before our panel began, I listened to a couple of talks about generational trends and challenges.  The focus was heavily on generational stereotypes and what that means for managing and motivating talent:

  • Matures (think, pre Baby Boom)
  • Baby Boomers
  • Generation X
  • Millenials

Boomers were described as valuing stability and tenure, Millenials as wanting lots of job changes and having different priorities.  Generation X: “you’re a little Boomer and a little Millenial.”  I’m smack in the middle of this Generation X definition by birth-date, and we were not only generalized with broad strokes, but as actually a combination of other broad stroke stereotyping.

I really do understand that hiring managers and HR professionals want a framework or keyring for unlocking and understanding the minds of younger professionals that they hire.  But people are people.  Recall when you were young and graduating from college, those of you in your 40’s.  You probably remember how the media and your elders were constantly talking about how unmotivated and undirected you were, not enough of a career climber, too moody, listening to too much Rage Against the Machine, Smashing Pumpkins, and Nirvana.

And it is only natural that people in our age group feel the same way about college grads now.  But that doesn’t make it right.  Or accurate.  These generational stereotypes, in my opinion, are not only inaccurate, they’re hurtful.  The Human part of HR hasn’t changed – people are people. They want to achieve, they want to make money, they want to feel fulfilled, and they want to be respected and appreciated.  And each person wants those things in different degrees and proportions. Spend more time with people in the age group you want to understand, and you’ll probably start understanding them better and empathizing with them more often.

Lest anyone think that Millenials are especially entitled and spoiled, I gently refer you to the late 90’s, when students from top schools were feted by startups everywhere (and especially by folks like Trilogy).  No one did entitled better than we did in the 90’s!  But context and circumstances shape people, regardless of age.  Post-tech-bubble, and post-great-recession, those of us in our 40’s are tempered that there will be hard times as well as good.  But let’s not forget what it was like to be purely optimistic.

On our panel, later in the afternoon, were fantastic representatives of Austin’s workforce:

  • Lori Knowlton, Chief People Officer at HomeAway, and someone who personally and professionally gives HR a good name.  HomeAway has been one of the best places to work in Austin for a long time, and a great local success story (public!).
  • Kristin Ruff, Director Global Team Services, Whole Foods, perhaps the most famous Austin “startup gone big”, and public.
  • Rod Crain, Talent Acquisition Manager, City of Austin- with a ton of credibility around workplace issues, benefits, and talent development.
  • Myself, CTO at BP3.  I might have been the odd duck in that I’m not in a traditional HR role, but if you know BP3, you’ll know that that is just a reflection of how our business operates.  HR is everyone’s job here.
  • We were moderated by Phil Blair, of Manpower.  He’s an accomplished speaker and author, and clearly knows the business of HR quite well.

This panel represents the best of Austin company practices with respect to team and people.  You could learn so much from these four other panelists, and it was really fun to hear their perspective on the same topics – and to find that my point of view is shared by some other companies we could aspire to in many ways.

A word came up during the Q&A from the audience:  “inclusion” – rather than the word “diversity” in a sentence that I would have traditionally heard the word diversity. What an interesting effect that one word choice has.  Can we strive for age inclusion in our workplaces – making those of all ages feel welcome?  We can if we focus our culture on things that transcend age.  The other panelists really are great companies to pattern after when it comes to inclusion.

The folks on this panel have great understanding of inclusion and diversity and the common threads that work across generations.  It was great to see that I’m not the only one who is frustrated by this era of age generalization (I blame Fortune Magazine, but there are other sources).

You could learn a lot more from the other panelists than you could from me about HR.  I’m the CTO at BP3 – and while we have, worldwide, a small fraction of the numbers that the other companies have (we’re under 100, they’re all over 1000).   I joked that you could argue whether the T in CTO was Technology, Talent, or Therapy.

Let me share the interview questions we were told to prepare for (the actual questions were quite different), and my thoughts on each one, which I didn’t necessarily get to share in the conference!

What is the most important factor in retaining employees? (Work-life balance, money, challenging work, etc.)

This depends on the premise you set up.  If you recruit with the premise of work-life balance it will be a big part of how you retain. If you recruit with “solving really challenging problems” then that’s how you retain.  If you recruit with the promise of riches, that’s how you retain.

We recruit with a sense of self-motivation, teamwork, and family, and respect.  We emphasize customer experience. We de-emphasize things like corporate ladders and levels, and money.  We do focus on perks and money only in the sense that they support the mission.  So we retain our employees by living our recruitment – we reward initiative and self-motivation, and recognize it publicly, and work hard as a team and to take care of our extended family.  For example, we pay full insurance for an employee’s family – not because it is a cool perk, but because it is consistent with our values around family and team.  When we behave in ways consistent with our values, our company benefits through increased retention and esprit de corps.

How have you determined this? (Interviewed employees in person, surveys, annual performance reviews, exit interviews when people leave the company, etc.)

We didn’t use a scientific method.  We just ran the company assuming that the people we hired would feel the same way we wanted to feel when we were employees and not the boss.  Subsequently, surveys have backed up our belief, but I think a large part of this is that people self-select out in the recruiting process because we are honest about the kind of place we are.  And then they’re encouraged and reinforced when they get to BP3 and see that we are the way we sell ourselves.  Reinforcement like being named a Best Place to Work in Austin two years in a row doesn’t hurt either!

How important is the business itself and what it offers, a great product, in retaining talent?

I think you’ll find, the less interesting your product is the more important your culture is. Think Zappos (shoes), Retail Me Not (coupons), etc. We’re in BPM – maybe not as boring to me as shoes, but probably more boring than shoes for most people!  The more “boring” your business is, the more critical culture and mission will be to your corporate ethos and success with talent retention.

Do you change your tactic(s) when dealing with different workers in different generations? Millennials, baby boomers, etc.?

Absolutely not. I think when people do this they are engaging in a form of agism and condescension that I find really offensive, personally.  People are people. People grow as they age and experience the world, but that is not generational as much as it is experiential and contextual.  We treat all of our employees with the same measure of respect, opportunity to grow, and opportunity to make an impact.  We recruit college hires with almost the same approach as we do industry hires.  The great culture fits will self-select toward BP3 as a result. 

Could you give us some examples of significant policy changes that have reaped benefits in retention and engagement? (Volunteering around the community, paternity leave and paid maternity leave, meals/snacks in break room, etc..)

I don’t know that any one thing has done it, beyond when we first added a 401k program with matching. But I think we’ve established a history of small improvements over time to make an impression.  We added vision and dental. We added a student loan benefit. We added a ping pong table and a shuffleboard table.  Each change we’ve made has been positive, and carefully considered to be sustainable over time.

How do you make significant policy changes, which can be expensive and time-consuming to arrange, “worth it”?

For one we think about the total taxable impact. Some things are more tax efficient for companies to pay for rather than employees.  And we make sure our team knows about the thought process. But we always have to make sure our business can sustainably support our benefits – so we have to be careful about it.

Which lessons have you learned? Have there been any policy changes that were tried but unsuccessful?

So far, no.

For an HR professional who is working with a system that needs to change, how can he or she get started? What are some easy first steps that are cost effective and don’t take a lot of time?

not the right guy to answer this one :)

How can businesses with challenges, such as a small business with limited resources, a fast-paced startup, or a company with difficult/grueling work and long hours/late night/weekend work, retain valuable employees and lower the turnover rate? (Bonuses, etc. to compensate in a way for the challenges)

First, charge more for your service/product/offering.  Make sure your business is making money.  That money (profit) is the fuel for paying for all the things you need to support your culture and business.  It is what lets you pay people more, bonus them more, and cover more benefits.  This is advice that I got from Reuben Swartz of Mimiran – and great advice it is.

Second, get out of panic mode.  Long nights/weekends sound really necessary to people who can’t plan their work very well, and regularly bite off more than they can chew.  But you’re better off not trying to run it that way.  It’s a fool’s choice. I can say that like a guy throwing rocks from my glass house.  I work a lot, and have for most of my career. But over time I learned that everyone needs to find their own “right” level of work that allows them to run the marathon, rather than the sprint.

Bonuses won’t fix burnout.  Planning and hiring and committing to appropriate work levels and deadlines is what fixes burnout.  Burnout is really expensive. It is worth avoiding if at all possible.

 

  • Lori Knowlton

    Thanks for the mention, Scott! Talent is everyone’s job — all Chief Tech Officers should be so bold to explicitly swap out the “T” in their title for “Talent” . Brilliant.

    • It was really awesome sitting next to you on the panel. Loved getting at least a glimmer for how you think about this stuff at HomeAway. Lots to learn, and incorporate into my own way of seeing things.

      Going to advocate for that T is for Talent thing ;)

  • Noe Banda

    Great summation. Here is one of my favorite Ted Talks about “motivation” since retention of employees is all about making sure the workforce is motivated to “mission”, not matter the generation. I like the advice you got about making sure the profits are there and the workforce is compensated well enough to get that out of the way. Now comes the challenge of what motivates your people to take on the challenges ahead? I give you Dan Pink and the “The Puzzle of Motivation” http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation

    BTW – my wife is an HR Administrator. :)

    • Noe, agreed: motivation isn’t unique to a particular generation – or even cause. But I think understanding how your company brings “innate” motivation to the table is a key step. if it doesn’t bring innate motivation, then you better find it in some other fashion – good works, charity, etc. – or find one (e.g. Tom’s Shoes) that is related.

      • Noe Banda

        Agreed. When the company’s strong innate “mission” meets the employee’s intrinsic “purpose”, you realize a very strong workforce, regardless of generation. Ted Pink decided to focus on “autonomy” in his presentation because at the time it was perhaps the most radical shift in an organization than the other two (Mastery and Purpose). I find “purpose” to be the most over arching of the three for generational workforce. BTW – I find “posting Cat Videos” to be a hard sell to retain talent, but it seems to work for some! :) BTW (numero dos), you might be interested in IBM’s report on Millennials, or basically their attempt at Myth Busting: http://www-935.ibm.com/services/us/gbs/thoughtleadership/millennialworkplace/

  • Surprisingly, IBM provides some data that supports the contrarian point of view on this generational subject (granted, in an infographic ; )
    http://www-01.ibm.com/common/ssi/cgi-bin/ssialias?subtype=WH&infotype=SA&appname=GBSE_GB_TI_USEN&htmlfid=GBL03032USEN&attachment=GBL03032USEN.PDF#loaded