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Generational Conflict in the Workplace

Written by Sharp, Kelly

The generational conflict can be traced to specific differences in culture, values and communication styles. With the elder group of Baby Boomers getting ready to retire, and Generation X hitting middle age and middle management, how things are done in the workplace is about to change dramatically.   

Baby Boomers, born between 1940 and 1960, make up the majority of the workforce and also the majority of the leadership roles in police departments. In the workplace, they are driven to get the job done and are willing to do whatever is necessary to succeed. Baby Boomers prefer a formalized workplace with a specific hierarchy and believe employees start at the bottom and work their way up, paying their dues as they go. Confident and determined, Baby Boomers assume everyone shares their work ethic and thinks as they do.

Unfortunately, this belief doesn’t sit well with Gen X, born between 1960 and 1980. Gen X is a small but vocal minority who are often accused of lacking respect by their Baby Boomer bosses. This generation saw the recession and the downsizing of their parents by companies who turned to technology in place of people. As a result, Gen X is fiercely independent and loyal to self first, family second, and employer third. Risk takers who are bored with formalized training, they expect bosses to be colleagues and are often perceived as arrogant.

All this is not to say that a Gen Xer has to “get a work ethic” or a Baby Boomer has to “get a life.” Rather it indicates that an understanding of where the other person is coming from can create a more effective communication in the workplace, and that means the generational issues must be taken into consideration.

 

Challenge #1 – The Open Door Policy

The commander announces he is implementing an Open Door Policy. Suddenly, he is inundated with line officers who drop by to bring him a complaint and sergeants who complain that patrol officers are circumventing the chain of command.

For a Baby Boomer, an Open Door Policy indicates management is aware problems will exist in the workplace and want to be an active part of the solution. Baby Boomers respect hierarchy, believe in following the chain of command, and understand the Open Door Policy indicates the commander wants to be considered part of that chain of command when it comes to solving problems.

A Gen Xer, however, translates the Open Door Policy to mean if he has an issue he can stop by the commander’s office at any time and discuss it. Because Gen X believes management is made up of colleagues, he takes at face value the idea that the commander’s Open Door Policy is just that, and feels comfortable dropping in. Rather than following a strict chain of command, the Gen Xer believes having levels of supervision is more of a suggestion than a fact.

To address this disparity, administrators must clarify, clarify, clarify. Many department heads have an Open Door Policy, but it is important to explain exactly what that means using language each generation understands. If the Open Door Policy refers to including management in issues once the chain of command has been followed, this needs to be clearly indicated. On the other hand, if the Open Door Policy means officers have the freedom to come and go with complaints without talking to direct supervisors, that needs to be spelled out.

 

Challenge #2 - Overtime 

The chief reviews the overtime budget and sees a recent spike in the amount being paid for call back or mandatory overtime. An investigation shows a deep division between the Baby Boomers and Gen Xers on the amount of shifts they are willing to work.

Baby Boomers believe in doing what is necessary to get the job done and that everyone should share in the duties. They are willing to work overtime if needed, but feel those at the bottom of the totem pole should take the majority of overtime hours because they have less seniority. Baby Boomer officers often become frustrated with the perceived lack of work ethic shown by the members of Gen X and fear these officers will not succeed in the workplace because they do not show initiative.

The values of a Gen X officer, however, are to self first, family second, and work third. In this values system, working overtime hours is acceptable if it will benefit self or family. Once the Gen X officer has decided his need has been filled, he will no longer volunteer to work overtime hours. The Gen Xer, who treats each position as a stepping stone, is less concerned about working simply to scale a career ladder and is confused by the insistence of the Baby Boomer officer to spend time away from home and family to benefit “The Department.”

The issue here is not necessarily the amount of overtime an agency has, but rather how employees view the need to volunteer for shifts. The Baby Boomer believes the Gen Xer has no work ethic, and the Gen Xer believes the Baby Boomer has given up his life for the department. Teaching each generation about what the other values, needs and wants can open communication to facilitate understanding.

 

Challenge #3 - Technology 

The agency has received a large grant to upgrade the computer system used by the officers. This system will allow officers to process reports from their vehicles, see records and jail information, and communicate more effectively with dispatch. While the Generation X officer is non-committal or excited, the Chief finds resentment from some of the older officers.

While many Gen Xers cannot remember a time without the Internet, cell phones and iPods, the computer can be considered a recent invention in history. For many Baby Boomers, the information age was equal parts excitement and frustration as technology increased by leaps and bounds. As this generation ages, it may become harder for these officers to assimilate the new technology as quickly or effectively. Baby Boomers are not reluctant to new technology per se, but they may question why an agency needs the newest product when what is already in place works just fine.

Gen X, on the other hand, sees these computer systems and upgrades as a routine part of life in the department. More adaptable and independent than Baby Boomers, Gen X is willing to learn and use new technology as long as it does not take away from their personal hierarchy of self, family, work.

Rather than learning everything about the program, the skeptical Gen X officer will learn enough to make it work, since they “know it’s just going to be changed in six months.” In addition, Gen X is not afraid to use the skills and talents of those around them to find shortcuts and faster ways to accomplish tasks, rather than to take the time to learn the entire system.

Solving a technology issue between the generations will require two informational formats. Since Baby Boomers prefer structure they will need to know the plan to educate them will be structured, relevant, and will include follow-up. Baby Boomers may need to be reassured they will have ample time to learn the material to avoid any embarrassment due to younger officers adapting more quickly.

Information provided to Gen Xers, however, needs to revolve around the amount of time they are expected to give to learning the new program. Bored with formalized learning processes, the Gen X officer needs to know he will be provided training that matches his speed of learning, as well as resources he can use to get answers at a later date.

 

Challenge #4 – Respect My Authority!

In the world of the Baby Boomer, respect comes with rank. The Baby Boomer commander or chief has worked hard to climb the ladder of success and earn his stripes or bars and expects the sacrifices he made and his accomplishments to be respected.  Imagine his surprise when the Gen X officer could care less about how hard he worked to get to where he is. Or, even worse, when the Gen X officer questions every decision he makes, or refuses to follow orders he does not agree with. Insubordination?

In the Gen X world, respect does not come from the decoration on the clothing, but rather from the actions of the person. Skeptical Gen X does not give their respect lightly, but once earned it is kept. Is the commander “doing right” by the officers? Does the chief make decisions and stick to them? Are hard choices both made and explained? The Gen X officer does not blindly follow his leaders, but instead expects to be considered part of the management team.

In this scenario, both halves have to be willing to meet in the middle. The Baby Boomer needs to understand that gaining the respect of a Gen Xer is based more in current actions than in past accomplishment. In return, the Gen X officer must understand the need a Baby Boomer has for respect in the workplace and take the time to learn what that looks like. Often both sides will be caught up in proving they are right, rather than addressing the underlying problem of how and why respect is shown. 

 

Challenge #5 – Be Happy you Have a Job

In today’s economy, the Baby Boomer administrator may use the phrase “Be happy you have a job” as both a punishment and reward when talking to rebellious Gen X.  To the Baby Boomer mind this is a valid statement of truth. Economic reality means high unemployment and more competition for positions. 

So pointing out to the Gen X officer that small grievances should be put aside in gratitude to be working makes perfect sense to the Baby Boomer administrator who craves structure and stability. For the Gen X officer however, this has the same effect as waving a red cape to a bull. Gen X values quality of life and life / work balance and expects even the small grievances to be given the same importance as larger issues.

 

Challenge #6 – Moving On

The training budget never seems to catch up and it seems the department is spending all their time training for someone else. While the Baby Boomer thinks of the department as a place to stay until he retires, the Gen Xer plans on getting two years under his belt and he is going to lateral out the door. 

Many Baby Boomer officers will spend entire careers in one or two police agencies and they are deeply committed to the success of their department. Knowing the structure and hierarchy of the agency, and where they fit in, meets their need for stability and standardization.

As a result, they can become frustrated by Gen X officers who do not have the same commitment, but instead treat the department as a stepping stone to something else. For the Gen X officer, each workplace is simply a stop on the way to the next. With their entrepreneurial spirit, Gen X is always on the lookout for the next position that will fit better with their goals.

It is important for administrators, chiefs and hiring personnel to take careful note that in both Challenge #5 and Challenge #6 Gen X holds the upper hand. With only 46 million Gen Xers, compared to 76 million Baby Boomers, this means the Gen X officer can pick and choose where he wants to work and as Baby Boomers retire their options will only increase. While the statement “be happy you have a job” works in the current recession, it may not when the economy inevitably recovers.

To recruit, train and retain the Gen X officer, Baby Boomer administrators must learn to think as they do, rather than the other way around. Knowing what drives a Gen X officer, how to communicate with him, and what he values will make the difference between keeping and losing him. A benefit package that includes education, travel and time with family is more attractive to the Gen X officer than the retirement package that motivated the Baby Boomer.

 

Work and Play Well Together

While the challenges of conflict within the generations can seem convoluted and complicated, often it can be corrected by addressing simple communication and cultural errors. Knowing what a person heard is different from what was said can help prevent knee jerk reactions that lead to conflict in the workplace.

Educating officers in the idea of generational conflict, including differences of speech and dress, as well as values and work ethics can prevent problems before they start. This education can enable officers to determine when a perceived lack of respect may stem from a communication issue or when an unreasonable demand is simply a different choice of priorities. 

By providing education to the employees about the differences in how generations communicate, and perhaps a section on how to determine how employees respond, an agency can respond to problems before they start. And then everyone can be more prepared for when Generation Y joins the mix!

 

Kelly Sharp is a partner in Workplace Consulting NW, LLC, which provides a variety of training and management classes. In addition, she has worked as a 911 training officer and dispatcher for 16 years. She can be reached at kellysharp@wpcnw.com.


Published in Law and Order, Jul 2012

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