Mumbai: Neha Sahni is a 22-year-old working for the financial arm of a banking group. It was just another work day when Sahni walked into the office in a smart tee shirt and sneakers, only to be summoned by her senior manager. What they discussed over the next 10 minutes was not her performance or her next assignment, but the way she should be, rather should not be, dressed at the workplace. A seemingly innocuous thing like attire was causing resentment among her older colleagues. Young as she was, the advice on sartorial skills didn’t go down well with Sahni, who began looking for another job.
As the workplace becomes increasingly multi-generational, companies are grappling with many problems relating to behaviour and attitude towards work. On the one hand, there is a generation of young professionals, which is ambitious, pushy and has no compunctions about mixing work with fun. On the other hand, there are people, old enough to be their young colleagues’ parents, who have spent decades in their jobs and are more conservative in their approach to work. Conflicts are but to be expected in the circumstances.
“One of the challenges companies face today is resolving conflict among different generations,” says R. Raghuram, director, human resources, Motorola India.
Just about anything can cause friction. For instance, the older employee likes to discuss important issues in person; the younger lot prefers virtual meetings. While the older generation prefers annual reviews, Gen X and Y feel demotivated if they don’t get frequent feedback.
The difference doesn’t end here. “For the older generation, stability and security are paramount, while the young seek fast-paced growth. They are disruptive in a very positive way. They have more risk-taking appetite than the older generation,” says Raghuram.
According to HR experts, these attitudinal differences, if not resolved in time, have the potential to disrupt work and growth of a company. They may even lead to talent loss, as in the case of Sahni.
As a result, an increasing number of employers are honing up on ways to ensure such conflicts do not arise in the first place and, if they do, to resolve them peacefully. “Since a lot more of the younger population is getting into the professional field, it is incumbent on the companies to train their people well and ensure a conducive work culture,” says Piyush Mehta, vice-president, human resource, Genpact, a Gurgaon-based business process outsourcing company.
Many companies are holding interactive sessions and common-training programmes to bring the young and the old together and allow them to know each other better.
“We recently trained mortgage-company Parsec Interact’s new recruits, mainly young people, along with its older employees, so that the new lot could get to know them better and fit into the system well,” says Mohan Babu, MD, Training Alternatives, a boutique organization development consultancy.
HR managers say the command-and-control type of management does not work with young people. “They have grown up questioning their parents and cannot put up with management’s condescension,” says Raghuram.
A survey by Lee Hecht Harrison, a New Jersey-based executive career-consulting firm, shows that older employees tend to dismiss younger workers’ abilities and younger employees return the favour with the same intensity.
A recent Korn/Ferry International survey of executives from more than 70 countries, including India, found that 49% of its respondents felt that today’s young professionals don’t display the same level of work ethics as the earlier generation. Experts point out that younger employees have a different attitude toward work, but this does not necessarily indicate they lack work ethics.
“Today’s professionals are highly committed to their work and have a strong sense of ownership,” says Deepak Gupta, country head and managing director, Korn/Ferry International, a human capital solutions company.
Sociologists feel that what we are witnessing are the effects of structural changes in the family set-up trickling down to the workplace. “There is a paradigmatic shift in the old sense of loyalty,” says Surinder Jodhka, professor, sociology, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. “The loyalty of the younger generation is more towards their self or career than their company.”
The pre and post-colonial work culture has seen a complete breakdown because of globalization and the arrival of younger professionals. Often, what’s seen as poor work ethics is usually just a different perception about work.
“This generation does not suffer from job- and finance-related insecurities like baby boomers and have a lot more opportunities and financial cushion than their parents ever did,” says Raghuram.
As a result, companies are investing both time and resources, explaining their work culture to employees and ensuring that all age groups are comfortable working together.
Employers recognize the strengths of Gen Xers and Gen Yers. They try to ensure that the fact that they are informed, multi-skilled and tech-savvy is not held against them by their older counterparts.
“They are entering into the job market when companies the world over face an ageing workforce. They are critical to the job market because they are the future of any organization,” adds Jodhka.
The key is to foster synergy between experience and knowledge, old and young. Raghuram puts it succinctly: “Please don’t see the younger generation as trouble-makers. They are catalysts for change.”