Potential Liabilities In Managing A Multigenerational Workforce

by Pepper Hamilton LLP

A version of this article was originally published in the April 2014 issue of The HR Specialist. It is reprinted here with permission.

A recent CNN segment highlighted the use of video games as part of the job interview process,1 and other news articles have explained that some employers rely on these games to assess, beyond the traditional job interview, an applicant’s skill or potential to succeed. But, since many baby boomers and members of the World War II generation are still in the workforce, employers should be mindful of potential legal liabilities associated with these forward-thinking hiring methodologies and other workplace trends that may put those generations at a disadvantage.

The current workforce consists of four generations, each with unique strengths, values, expectations and, perhaps, limitations. Managers overseeing a multigenerational workforce have the challenge of structuring a management style to serve each generation’s varying (and sometimes conflicting) needs while simultaneously running a successful business. Consider the following generations and their noted characteristics and how this might impact a business:2

World War II generation: At least one study describes this generation, born before 1945 and raised during World War II, as disciplined, hard-working individuals who prefer face time to e-mail and telephone calls to video conferencing. According to the study, members of this generation are recognized for their work ethic based on commitment and conformity, prefer the status quo and are hesitant to promote workplace change.

Baby boomers: These individuals, born between 1946 and 1964, are approximately 40 percent of the workforce and are described as autonomous, self-sufficient, hard-working multi-taskers who are valuable team players. Studies show they tend to work long hours and struggle with work-life balance.

Generation X: Not surprisingly, Generation X, born between 1965 and 1977, is considered more tech-savvy than previous generations. Studies describe Gen Xers as good at problem solving and adaptability. They value the freedom to work remotely and are inclined to “job hop” if that freedom is not available.

Generation Yer/millennial: This generation, individuals born between 1978 and 1989, is considered to be the most tech-savvy and rely heavily on social media for professional growth.

Managers should be aware of these differences and of possible legal pitfalls that can result from managing such a generationally diverse workforce. Below are three tips to help managers effectively manage this workforce and reduce the risk of age discrimination claims.

Not Every Employee Is a Techie

Companies that want to rely on Web-based job performance, video conferencing and, as stated above, even video gaming may unintentionally screen out senior employees who were not raised in the information age and who tend to shy away from technological innovations. In some cases, this “need” for tech-savvy employees may disproportionally affect senior workers, if they are not hired or promoted because they are less proficient with technology. Hiring managers should inquire about and assess technological ability only if it is needed to perform a critical job function. Similarly, managers should review their performance evaluation forms to determine if technological ability is rated, and whether it’s necessary. Finally, managers should remember that communication need not only be electronic, and try to schedule face-to-face visits or telephone calls also.

Consider Restructuring Job Responsibilities to Hone Strengths

Often, employees alleging age discrimination contend that after a job restructuring, they were “set up to fail” because their manager gave them job responsibilities they were unable to perform. In restructuring jobs, employers should evaluate employees’ differing strengths and limitations. Employers should review employee job descriptions and functions to determine whether responsibilities should be transferred or merged, depending on the employee’s ability. For example, if a job requires or can be enhanced with extensive industry knowledge, a manager might consider for that job a baby boomer who has that knowledge by virtue of his/her experience. In contrast, a job requiring extensive video conferencing or the ability to travel or work remotely may be more attractive to a Generation Xer. When new job responsibilities are assigned, managers should offer training to assist employees in performing these new functions. Employers should be careful, however, not to make assumptions about an employee’s technological or other abilities based on the employee’s age.

Offer Job Training to Managers of a Multigenerational Workforce

To further reduce legal liabilities, employers should also consider educating managers on best practices in managing a multigenerational workforce. For example, a Generation X manager, unaware of a baby boomer’s aversion to the use of smartphones or “working remotely,” may become frustrated with the baby boomer’s resistance to these practices. The manager’s frustration could be viewed as a type of age discriminatory animus towards that worker. Employers who educate managers about a multigenerational workforce’s differing work styles and values may be able to help managers adjust expectations and better communicate with their employees. Managers also should be trained to assess employees based on their individual skill sets and performance, and not on stereotypical assumptions based on their generation’s characteristics.


1 See “Will video games replace job interviews?” by Anastasia Anashkina at cnnmoney.com at http://money.cnn.com/video/pf/2014/01/09/pf-job-search-video-game-tests.cnnmoney/.

2 Information on the different generations and related characteristics can be found at Managing Today’s Multigenerational Workforce at http://www.lhh.com/en-US/thought-leadership/Documents/managing-todays-multigenerational-workforce.pdf and Here are the Strengths and Weaknesses of Millenials, Gen X and Baby Boomers by Vivian Giang, September 9, 2013 at http://www.businessinsider.com/how-millennials-gen-x-and-boomers-shape-the-workplace-2013-9

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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