Articles > Competing Interests Clash at Work: Trends for Individuals and Organizations

Competing Interests Clash at Work: Trends for Individuals and Organizations
Globe & Mail, January 25, 2008

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

As 2008 unfolds, a number of themes and trends continue to dominate the workplace landscape. Here's a closer look at some of them, and how they will affect organizations and individuals:

Gen X this, Gen Y that

Organizations are tripping over themselves trying to woo and satisfy bright young things (translation: graduates with technical and specialist degrees, rather those in the liberal arts or social sciences).

But they've learned that the pool tables, jukeboxes and cool wallpaper they offered up in the nineties are not sufficient enticement. Now, they're showing their green stripes, focusing their recruitment and retention efforts on Gen Y-friendly digital media, and stressing their understanding of the need for work/life balance (not that they're really doing much about that one, but never mind).

Younger workers expect to be continually stimulated, and that their feelings and opinions count. This means being treated like an equal, no matter how junior they are, and with sensitivity.

Still, employers are particularly perplexed by Gen Y expectations, and their sense of entitlement. Even though they are holding lots of conferences and workshops that address the theme, they haven't got it right yet.

As one human resources vice-president said: "Company leaders talk the Y Generation talk but don't translate this into action. They continue to blow it, and Yers don't give you a second chance before they're out the door."

Canada's dirty little secret

At the other end of the age spectrum, older workers also experience the double talk as many organizations, despite their chatter about engagement, continue to make more senior staff feel unwelcome.

I recently wrote a column about older workers feeling, at best, undervalued and, at worst, that they are being forced into early retirement. I received many e-mails from readers that could best be summarized by one man's comment: "This is one of Canada's dirtiest secrets."

Many senior HR leaders and recruiters agreed that older workers are being treated like second-class citizens and rued the waste of what they have to contribute, including organizational knowledge and ability to mentor younger workers.

The irony of lamented skills shortages is not lost on these older workers. Although there have been many predictions they will be sought after to fill the gaps, I, along with many external recruiter and internal HR leader colleagues, see no evidence of that, especially at the more senior levels.

Intergenerational tensions

Heightened consciousness about the generations is causing its own set of tensions: Older workers resent feeling undervalued and being shabbily treated; their younger counterparts are impatient, feeling their careers blocked by the generation above and unaccustomed to the notion of "putting in their time." But this impatience is seen as arrogance by their older bosses who measure their young staff's behaviour against how they behaved when they were "their age."

The truth: The differences between the generations are not nearly as big as they have been trumpeted to be. Workers of all ages share many of the same core values: work/life balance, for instance, is as important to older staff as it is to younger ones.

Organizations are forgetting what really matters: People have different personalities; if employers want to really understand their workers, they must realize people are a far greater function of who they are than how old they are.

Diversity redefined

Diversity continues to be a hot buzzword, with more companies searching for talent beyond Canada's border and laying out the welcome mat for a wider pool of people already inside the country.

They are becoming less disdainful about the value of foreign degrees and providing training to immigrant hires to ease their transition into the work force.

But increasingly, organizations are recognizing that diversity is more than skin-deep, and that, if you expand the definition to include people with different types of views or personalities, you also expand the pool of available talent.

But it's not enough to get diverse people in the door. You have to keep them by making them feel welcome. To this end, employers are investing significant money in various kinds of sensitivity training.

his has led to significant debate at the management table. The challenge: How to be welcoming to a broader range of people without undermining the existing corporate culture that has been the very magnet for staff already on board.

A number of clients have said that figuring out the "how" to create diversity is one of their most critical issues. What they have learned, though, is that it's not enough to advertise in gay newspapers or participate in Pride Day to make them an attractive employer to gay workers, even if that is a good first step.

Managers at the breaking point

Impossibly large spans of control, poor training, lack of people and financial resources - these are the conditions increasingly suffered by middle managers. Everyone is feeling stressed but middle managers, caught, by definition, in the middle, particularly feel the burden.

As one organizational consultant wrote to me: "Over and over again, as I work with a variety of clients, I see middle managers struggle with delivery expectations without the authority or information or budget to make that happen. Very competent people are becoming burned out and overwhelmed because they can't do what they need to do to deliver."

The result, she says, is that they feel like personal failures. They aren't being stretched, they're being traumatized.

Organizations pay heed: If these managers feel they can't do their jobs properly, they will underperform. Or they will leave.

It's not only a problem at the middle stratum. Over and over again, I hear managers complain about the inferior quality of work being produced, as people work with inadequate resources and lack time for actually thinking about what they are doing, sleeping and recharging.

You're 'it'

It was ever so but, even more, people now understand that nobody will look after them. The only protection they have is up-to-date and in-demand skills, and a flawless performance record. Their organizational value lies in their contributions, not in who they are as human beings.

As one twentysomething finance professional commented ruefully during a workshop I held: "I'm an expendable Post-It."

They see loyalty as an exchange: I'm here as long as it feels good, gone when it doesn't.

Given that career management is such a high stakes game, people are, not surprisingly, extremely concerned about getting it right. Right doesn't only mean being employable: it also means ensuring that work is a good fit and feels good as a source of meaning and satisfaction.

The cost of freedom to manage your career and career choices is never resting on your laurels. No wonder, depression and anxiety are running rampant in the workplace.

Focus on top talent

Here's some more double talk: companies promote the importance of training and development but, increasingly, are targeting only the crème, leaving behind the solid soldiers who are the organizational backbone. And then, employees identified as high-potential (hi-po in the vernacular) are fast-tracked into jobs over their heads, without adequate support. Some fail - and more will.

We're green

Organizations are promoting their environmental friendly practices in response to client and employee expectations. Candidates, especially younger ones, say it makes a difference in their choice of employer.
Will great numbers of people turn down a great job in favour of a less interesting position at a company that promotes itself as green? I have my doubts.

Telecommuting grounded

Several clients, including those noted for being family-friendly, have seen a decline in managers' willingness to support staff telecommuting. As one consultant said: "There are a number of companies I work for which openly, or quietly, discourage this option. The pendulum is definitely swinging back on workplace flexibility."

A helping hand

Mentoring and career planning top many workers' wish lists. In fact, more than half of about 40,000 professionals and managers who have used my on-line career self-assessment tool have said they are confused about what they want to do, are considering a career change and want helping in determining a new direction.

More companies and associations are responding with mentoring programs. And people are also increasingly turning to professional coaches. And not just older or more affluent workers - younger staffers and those of more modest means are also making such investments in their careers.

What balance?

Work/life balance is a victim of the lots of talk and no action syndrome. No matter how many different ways HR professionals try to frame it - work/life integration, flexibility, work/life harmony -the bottom line is that it is not really getting any better and, in many companies, it appears to be getting worse.

But talented staff, confident in their employability, will increasingly walk out the door if they can't have control over their personal lives.

New meanings of success

Instead of money and security, prized status symbols are time, flexibility and the opportunity to be creative and own your work.

Nor do people want to hang up their personality or values at the corporate door. Top of their work wish list is being able to express who they are; instead of trying to change themselves so that they can fit in, they interview potential employers to see if the organization's culture is a good fit.

For many, great work means doing something that benefits others or the planet. Young workers see working for not-for-profits and government agencies as much sexier than their counterparts of a decade or two ago. Older workers look to make career changes to more values-based employers.

Leadership is also being redefined more holistically. No more is it only about moving up in an organization; now, people want to be respected and valued for their contributions in all human endeavours, including family and community, not only in the job.

Women's work

Gender is playing a greater role than age or organizational level in determining how people feel about their jobs, what they are looking for, and how they cope.

Women, for instance, are more likely to cite desires to be authentic and have flexibility as key motivators than are men. Women in midlife are looking to be stretched and energized by their work and to make meaningful connections with colleagues, while men tend to want autonomy.

There is also a new career and work pattern emerging that flips traditional gender roles and experiences on their head: More midlife women are thriving in their careers and doing work that deeply engages them while their husbands have been cast out of their jobs into unemployment, marginal employment, or premature retirement.

The workplace is kinder to women than it is to men. Recruiters tell me off the record that they prefer to hire midlife women because they are more enthusiastic, have greater empathy, and more desire to mentor younger workers.

Yet, extreme work is meeting extreme mothering. Not surprisingly, many women, whether stay-at- homers or working at a job, feel guilty and torn about whatever path they have chosen. And they're pushing back, voting with their feet when they feel they can't fulfill both roles.

But unlike their counterparts of a generation ago, who expected to have glorious careers coupled with glorious family lives, more realize they can't have it all.

Older women also feel the strains and are walking out the door. But flexibility, while important, is not as significant as a yearning to make their mark in their own business or in an environment whose key values they identify with.

What engagement?

Not surprisingly, one of the fallouts of some of these trends is staff demoralization - ironic and disturbing considering one of the major buzz phrases in HR circles today is staff engagement.

Of course, all of these trends have implications for human resource planning and organizational culture. Employers would be wise to pay attention to what is in the hearts and minds of their workers if they want to attract and keep the best talent in the years ahead.