By Melissa J. Anderson

According to a recent report published in the Online Journal for Workforce Education and Development, inter-generational conflict in the workplace is on the rise. And with three generations currently occupying the workforce, companies will need to pay more attention to this issue than they have in the past.

The report, Leveraging Generational Diversity in Today’s Workplace, outlines a few challenges that employers are facing when it comes to broad range of ages on a team. The authors, Matthew Legas, M.S. Food and Drug Administration, and Cynthia Sims, Ed.D. Southern Illinois University Carbondale, write:

“Each generation has distinctive experiences that have an impact on their values, and each has complex cultural variations (McNamara, 2005). There are also various communication styles and workplace experiences that distinguish each generation. The contrasting characteristics and sheer volume of these generations combined are creating tension and dissension within the workplace.”

And, they say, this “tension and dissention” is causing companies to be less productive. They continue:

“With three generations working together and a present lack of generational diversity understanding in today‘s workforce, a disharmony within U.S. businesses and decreased productivity has been evident (Clare, 2009). Corporate America seems to be ignoring these dynamics (Heffes, 2005).”

The report outlines a few ideas to ease generational tension – but it indicates that business leaders shouldn’t stop at diversity training – they need to be sure to engage employees in the work on a one-to-one level.

Building Generational Understanding

In particular, say Legas and Sims, baby boomers may take issue with the desire of younger members of the workforce to move up the ladder before they have “paid their dues.” They write, “This changing work pace and seemingly unfair system makes positive employee relationships across generations difficult. Communication can, therefore, be stifled among generations, which may negatively impact productivity and employee morale.”

In order to remedy the situation, they say, business leaders must go further than acknowledge generational differences. They have to work to ease tensions that are there – or those that will be. It says:

“Acknowledging generational diversity is not enough for a business that is aiming both its short- term and long-term goals on increasing economic capital in an ever-changing national and global market. U.S. organizations need to seek out effective generational diversity training programs to address generational misunderstandings.

“Few companies offer diversity training specific to generational diversity and tend to focus on race and gender differences. The problem that some organizations run into is that they wait until they have already failed in this area before addressing it.”

The authors suggest that diversity initiatives aimed at fostering generational understanding around communication and motivations can help create stronger teams. They explain, “Generational diversity training would go beyond the common training that focuses on race, gender, and sexual orientation. It would include generational differences, similarities, misconceptions, and common misunderstandings in the workplace salient.”

Importance of Building Relationships

But, they authors write, training isn’t enough. They suggest companies take a two-pronged approach to generational diversity, with a training initiative one side and a mentoring program on the other. “Also, a successful mentorship program would help the various generations to work together for success and allow U.S. businesses to capitalize on retention of knowledge transfer amongst its future human capital.”

Besides being a strategy for knowledge transfer, mentoring can help build rapport and closeness amongst team mates.

“Opportunities to collaborate on duties and interact in company events, both during and after work hours, can encourage cohesion and promote partnerships between various generations. Incorporating a mentoring program will give employees a chance to develop bonds across generations. Organizations should make it a priority to show they value their employees‘ participation in these mentoring programs by providing incentives for participants.”

They add, “The overall goal is to retain employees, who feel good about themselves, their co-workers, and their futures within the organization.” By making relationships the center of the workplace, individuals will feel more affinity for their employer and teammates, producing better productivity outcomes.