Workplace safety is unilaterally challenging and requires tremendous efforts from employers. Protecting against the variety of hazards present in the modern workplace is daunting, and as a Workplace Safety Consultant, I have witnessed how the difficult realities of attracting and retaining quality workers only exacerbate those challenges. In my opinion, one of the key factors that influences both the effectiveness of an organization’s safety efforts and its ability to grow and maintain a robust workforce is its approach to multigenerational dynamics.
Today’s workforce comprises four main generations, though a few members of the Silent Generation still remain. They are: Baby Boomers (1946-1964), Generation X (1965-1980), Millennials (1981-1996), and Gen Z (1997-2012). Before diving into considering the nuances of these groups in the workplace and what opportunities these factors present to employers, it is important to understand the definition and significance of a generation. It is loosely defined as a group or cohort sharing a point in history; a collective personality with similar lives, values, which have been shaped by historical life events or circumstances.
Generations typically span 15 to 20 years, though the exact beginning and end dates are often debated. It is also important to note that despite members of a generation being born within a similar window of time, viewpoints within generations can vary widely based on individual experiences, locations, and exact age. For example, an individual born on the cusp of two generations may have characteristics of both. Further, the generalizations attributed to each group should not be used to stereotype or discriminate, but instead to bridge divides and create a place at the table for each. Applying this generational lens can enhance our understanding of the distinct qualities and needs each employee brings to that table.
With these considerations in mind, the unique challenges and opportunities of a multigenerational workforce can be examined. It is beyond the scope of this writing to detail the complex nature of each cohort, however their characteristics provide important insight into how each generation approaches work.
While I am interested in this information for the purpose of improving workplace safety, the implications span every aspect of a business’s operation. Below are some of the questions employers should consider when attempting to understand the strengths, expectations, and challenges of the members of their workforce.
- What purpose does work play in the generation’s life?
- Example: As generations get younger, there tends to be an increased prioritization of work/life balance and desire for meaning from the work they are performing. Conversely, loyalty to a company tends to increase as generations get older.
- Safety Implications: How can we appeal to these affinities to prioritize safety in the work being performed?
- What is each generation’s preferred form of communication?
- Example: Baby Boomers and Generation Z tend to prefer communicating face to face, while Generation X and Millennials gravitate toward digital communication.
- Safety Implications: Consider how this impacts training preferences.
- Does the generation prefer collaborative, group work, or solo tasks?
- Example: Generations X and Z generally prefer to work independently, whereas Baby Boomers and Millennials value teamwork and collaboration.
- Safety Implications: How can these preferences be optimized in a setting such as a safety committee?
- How much structure does each generation prefer in their work?
- Example: Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials all value structure, explicit direction, and clear expectations, whereas Generation Z prefers flexibility in how tasks are accomplished.
- Safety Implications: Can our onboarding materials and methodology for new hires accommodate these preferences?
- Is multitasking appealing or do members of the generation tend to focus on one task at a time?
- Example: All generations apart from Baby Boomers are drawn towards multitasking.
- Safety Implications: Multitasking increases injury risks, so how can we proactively minimize the temptation to do so?
Once these, along with other questions about each generation are answered, an employer can begin identifying points of commonality and potential conflict between generations. Further, the company can identify job tasks that either align or directly oppose the preferences of the generations performing them.
This information provides organizations with the opportunity to capitalize on the positive connections and adjust in situations that may prove discordant. Here are some examples of ways employers can strengthen connections and bridge divides, and by extension, improve overall workplace culture and safety outcomes:
- Consider preferred communication, learning, and working styles
- Deliver messages via multiple methods
- Assign jobs according to aptitude and interest
- Where possible, allow flexibility in how tasks are accomplished
- Solicit and provide feedback
- Allow for multiple means of recognizing and rewarding employees
- Celebrate strengths of every generation
- Encourage knowledge and skill dissemination between generation through explicit goals
- Create teams with complementary skill sets
- Assign tasks to optimize success and collaboration
- Help generations find common ground
- Structure work to connect individuals from all age groups with similar work attributes, passions, and experiences
- Allow opportunities for informal interactions; these are often where commonalities are uncovered
- Plan ahead for situations that can highlight differences
- Create strategies for developing conflict resolution skills among leadership and employee base (onboarding, promotions, and retirement transitions, especially, generate stress and vulnerability for everyone involved)
- Use conflict as an opportunity for learning and organizational improvement
- Remember individuality
- Eliminate disparaging generational commentary, even if they are “jokes;” tensions and conflict spike when people are objectified and distilled to caricatures
As we consider what it looks like to build a thriving, safe business supported by a multigenerational workforce, many employers are at a crossroads. To capitalize on the opportunities and overcome the challenges presented by these diverse cohorts, organizations must prioritize flexible and inclusive training, communication, and conflict management methods.
In my work with hundreds of companies throughout the United States, it is the employers that are embracing this approach that are finding success in attracting and retaining employees, building a robust workplace culture, and ensuring their employees’ safety. I encourage you to take this opportunity to join their ranks!
Emily Lubman is the Director of Risk Management at HUB International. She has a Master of Public Health, with an emphasis in Occupational Safety and Health, and has earned her Certified Safety Professional Designation. She brings extensive safety management experience to HUB Clients across a wide variety of industries including: wood products, construction, manufacturing, retail, hospitality, higher education, food processing, transportation, and professional services. In her current role, she partners with clients to minimize employee and public safety losses, achieve regulatory compliance, and build a robust safety culture.
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