Working with Multiple Generations to Create Productive Work Environments

By Suzanne McIntosh

We came to our hospitality careers by a number of different paths. Some of us fell in love early, decided to go to a hospitality school and plotted a career up through a specific discipline. Others found ourselves in a service role that grew into a lifelong career that took us all over the world. Everyone has their story, but we all agree that the diversity of cultures, disciplines and scenery that make up our everyday work lives in hotels is one of the most exciting aspects of our daily work lives.

Along with the cultural diversity, we also find ourselves working with multiple generations. Conceivably we could sit at the cafeteria lunch table with three generations defined as: Baby Boomers (born prior to 1965) Generation X (1965 – 1984) and Generation Y/Millennials (1985 to 2004).

Because our industry exists on and fosters multiple generational workplaces. It is important for our leaders and managers to understand the specific characteristics of each and how they were acquired. Conceivably a Millennial could be a manager of a Baby Boomer or vice versa. This can result in workplace challenges as we struggle to understand the different characteristics of each generation and how to communicate, manage, motivate, discipline and reward as well as attract high performing talent from every generation. Gifted managers can capitalize on these differences for positive inter-generational leadership and communication. Baby Boomers. The Boomer Generation is often portrayed as a generation of optimism, self actualization and achievement. Boomers put emphasis on individual choice, community involvement and prosperity. They have a preference for face-to-face interaction, conflict avoidance and a team approach to decision making focusing on the result, not the procedure.

Boomers as Bosses…have high expectations for themselves and that of their team members. They expect everyone to contribute equally and at a very high level. Boomers tend to have a very strong work ethic and are accustomed to making personal sacrifices for the sake of their work. Our industry often requires a 24/7 commitment…Boomers came up through their careers with this attitude and if they are managing multi generations they may have the same expectation. If a Millennial subordinate does not hold this discipline a Boomer may see them as lazy or not committed. This is not the case, the Millennial just has a different set of priorities and attitudes to work/life balance.

Boomers respect authority and feel that a title automatically commands respect. A Boomer Director of Sales can empty out a hotel sales department of Millennials if they don’t recognize they have to earn the respect of their team rather than automatically gaining it as a result of their title.

Generation X. Generation X has less traditional work attitudes than the Baby Boomer generation preceding them. Unlike Boomers who tended to stay in companies for longer periods Generation X learned that loyalty does not necessarily translate into job security. This can result in frequent job changing and less personal sacrifice for “the long term”. It can be challenging for

this generation to work in a company with rigid work structures. As Boomers we are used to working those crazy hours and holidays without question. Gen X don’t always see the value or necessity…it can be a challenge for both sides of the reporting structure.

Generation X is not as likely to take instructions or direction without question. They need to understand the process, the end goal and their part in the result. They are less likely to tolerate “office politics” (invented by the Baby Boomers), and are not as adept at conflict resolution.

Generation X is independent, seeks autonomy and is adaptable. They are accustomed to questioning (while respecting) authority, are more likely to take personal risks and prefer to work independently once they understand the why and where. They are less likely to attach their worth to the company and see themselves as a marketable commodity.

Gen X is more “native” to technology as opposed to the Boomers who came to it later as adopters in their careers. They saw huge strides in technology and how it changed their work lives. They are not afraid of it and embrace it easier than the generation that precedes them.

Generation Y also referred to as Millennials… love to work in a collaborative environment (hence the proliferation of shared work spaces). They are very good at multi-tasking, handling a large number of competing priorities, crave change and adapt rapidly. They see work as an expression of themselves not as a definition of who they are.

Millennials need constant stimulation and recognition. They want to know how what they do contributes to the big picture and they need to understand how everything fits together. In their team sports growing up years everyone got to play no matter the skill level. Everyone got a medal whether they “won” or not. Blind obedience because “I said so”, “I’m the boss” or “I have the title” does not work for this generation.

Millennials are accustomed to immediate, the now and instant gratification. They are adept at working on four or five personal devices at the same time. Knowledge and communication is easily assessable and they communicate in much different ways from their Gen X and Boomer bosses and subordinates.

The need for work life balance for Millennials is heightened even more than Generation X before them. Millennials are less likely to seek managerial or team leadership positions that would compromise life outside of work. They require flexibility in work schedules and relaxed work environments.

The need for personal and self expression is very important to the Millennial. Many of our “lifestyle” companies easily adapt to this new approach to hospitality. You need only to look at the tattooed front desk staff and the open lap tops on shared tables in the lobby of Ace Hotels to see how this company is attractive to the Millennial employee (and guest). It can be more challenging for the luxury properties that still require morning suits and addressing guests in a formal manner.

One of our clients at Marshall Alan Associates has conceived a collaborative creative workspace that attracts young creative talent as member contact employees. They are developing a mentor program that matches member GenYer’s with staff Millennials to assist them in learning business skills. These recent graduates from Parsons or FIT benefit from member guidance and learn to read a P&L or forecast expenses on the job. This client recognizes the close relationship these Millennials have with their parents, with whom they are in constant contact. This generation is accustomed to parents who were involved in every aspect of their lives growing up. These are parents who want to see where their kids work and how they are treated. This client wants to be the work place of choice for their Millennial employees so that they are proud to tell their parents about where they work “around the Thanksgiving table”.

This generation needs constant feedback and individual recognition. They are not as motivated to compete with their fellow workers so to “motivate” by pitting them against each other to reach a goal will not work. Team recognition is also not much of a motivator. Their parents have treated them as individual VIP’s worth listening to, protected and counseled.

I have touched in past articles on the need to guide Millennial sales people in reading their client and communicating with them in the way the client would expect. This has been a basic sales tenant since I took PSS/XEROX sales skills training in the late 80’s. It may be more challenging in this era however, as an example, when a Boomer client expects a handwritten note and the Millennial rarely if ever picks up a pen and paper to write. Functional literacy is an issue with this generation.

On the flip side, harnessing the power of social media and the ability to get instantly in front of your clients and guests is useful for the Boomer boss not as equipped to understand the functionality. Your Millennial employees are “native” to all the technology. It’s important though to make sure the message is not too commercialized. It’s a fine line and best executed by a Millennial.

I have observed an interesting trend with Millennials in the early 20 age range. They are coming out of school highly educated with a low potential for finding positions in their field of work. They seem more willing to “do just about anything” that will allow them to work. While they have a built in sense of entitlement as a result of “helicopter parents”, they are scared and more flexible in their work choices. I am not suggesting we take unfair advantage of this situation however they may be more malleable and adaptable to a hospitality environment. They don’t automatically expect managerial jobs and will work “the line” to gain experience. They are also a sophisticated group of employees how may have studied abroad and done charitable work during their college years. Management trainee programs, mentorship opportunities are very important to this generation.

We are very fortunate in the hotel business to work with up to three generations of employees, colleagues and leaders. This happens in relatively few other industries. While it does have its challenges and obstacles, if our leaders and managers understand the different characteristics and motivators of each we have incredible opportunities to remain viable, flexible and relevant. Many companies are teaching “how to manage the Millennial”. I think it is important and we impress on our clients and candidates at Marshall Alan Associates, that all three generations are understood and encouraged to harness the opportunities provided by each generation.

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