Monday, December 21, 2009

Is your employer clueless about your needs?


As you can see from the previous post on Generation Y, anything to do with stereotypes in the workplace generates a lot of discussion. I decided to explore the issue further, really looking at what impacts us on the job -- is it our age? Our "generation"? Or is it something more than that? Here's a column I did for Gannett -- it certainly got me thinking more about this issue.


How old are you?

To what generation do you belong?

Based on the answers you give to those two questions, you probably are being treated a certain way in the workplace. Because of when you were born, your manager or co-workers may talk to you differently, react to you in specific ways or have preconceived notions about what you like and dislike.

For some, that may be OK. But for the majority? Kathy Lynch says they “hate it.”

Lynch, director of employer engagement at the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College, says that employers must understand that they have to look beyond an employee’s chronological age and the generational stereotypes that go with it or they can’t begin to really engage employees. If they can’t engage employees, productivity and innovation will suffer – and top talent will go elsewhere.

At the same time, Lynch says individuals also must understand that their age and generation may not truly define who they are, and they can become more “empowered” if they look at their lives in a different way.

For example, while baby boomers may be thought of as nearing retirement, the truth is that many in their 50s these days have begun new careers in new industries and may be more than 20 or more years from retiring – if they retire at all, Lynch says.

Lynch says that’s why her organization believes it makes more sense for individuals and companies to look at age and generations in the workplace in terms of:

1. Life stages. “This is where you are in life, such as being married or single, or having children,” she says.

2. Career status. “Are you defined by your relationship with your employer? Do you have a job or do you have your own identity?” she asks.


“We’ve found through our studies and workshops that depending on how people identified their stages, their experience in the workplace is different and what they’re looking for is different,” she says.


For example, Lynch says people who defined themselves as “early career” ranged in age from their late teens to mid-60s. But no matter the age, those in this career stage tended to say they were “less satisfied” with the meaning of their work. On the other hand, those who said they were “late career” ranged in age from their early 20s to their 80s and found “more meaning” in their work when at this stage, she says.


What employers can learn from these answers is that an employee deciding to leave a company may not have anything to do with his age or satisfaction with his work, but rather on where he identifies himself in his career. Lynch explains that a worker in his late 20s saying he is “late career” may be saying that he is ready to move on because he believes the employer has nothing left to offer.


While many experts caution that employers need to be projecting the retirement rates of older workers so that they can plan for future staffing needs, Lynch says it may make more sense to forget about specific ages and generations of workers, and instead focus on the “career plans” of workers. It doesn’t mean that age and generation should be completely dismissed because those things do impact people, Lynch says, but stereotypes can hamper getting the best from employees.


“Just because they’re 60 doesn’t mean they’re thinking about retirement,” she says. “They might be, but they might be thinking of a different job or a flexible work arrangement or staying and doing the exact same thing they are now. There are 50-year-olds looking for growth in their careers, and their employers need to be offering them training and opportunities.”


At the same time, Lynch says it’s not just employers that need to look at these age and engagement issues “through a different lens.”


“Many people in our workshops have these ‘ah hah!’ moments when we help them look at where they are in their career, no matter what their age,” she says. “We ask them to define their age in a more holistic way. It gives them a real sense of empowerment because they learn to ask themselves what’s most important to them right now, at this stage of their lives and career.”


Have you gone through different stages in your work life and what's important to you?


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Monday, July 28, 2008

Watch Out for That Wrinkle -- It May be a Career Killer

Recently, a friend told me about a party she attended called "Botox or Bangs." For those of you unaware of this trend (as I was), it means that when you get of a "certain age" you can either cut bangs to hide the wrinkles in your forehead, or you can get Botox to freeze your forehead so it doesn't move for months and it looks unlined.

My friend opted for the bangs -- and the Botox.

When I asked her why she would ever willingly let another person stick a needle in her face, her answer was this: "I just got a new boss -- and she's younger than me."

Yeah, so?

"Well," my friend says, "I know it may sound stupid, but I don't want to be the 'older employee' in my office. It's very competitive these days. I consider it to be an investment in my career."

OK. Well, silly me. I always considered an investment in a career to be attending a training session on PowerPoint presentations or taking a class at the university. But needles? Never crossed my mind.

My friend -- always very honest -- also confided that she was contemplating an eye lift, which I assume means even more needles and a couple of knives.

Why?

"Because," she explained slowly to me as if I were a 3-year-old wanting to know why I couldn't shave the family dog, "the people I work with are getting younger and younger. I don't want to have to look for another job at my age. I've got to hold onto this job, so I need to be as 'fresh' looking as possible."

I realize some of you are not going to be surprised by this in the least. After all, we see television programs that promote the young, the nubile and the unlined. We watch reality shows on everyday people becoming "swans" after undergoing plastic surgery, and books on how not to look old are bestsellers.

Still, it's disturbing to think that older workers believe they are no long viable unless their faces resemble something out of Madam Tussaud's wax museum. Back fat, jiggly arms and crow's feet are now career liabilities?

According to the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, about two thirds of its members say that men and women are requesting cosmetic surgery because they wanted to remain competitive in the workplace.

Earlier this year I interviewed Dr. Gordon Patzer, founder of the Appearance Research Institute, and he told me that employers consistently hire and promote the best-looking candidates in a pool of equally qualified people. At the same time, he talked about the ugly downside of a society obsessed with youth and good looks, noting the rise of unhealthy body obsessions.

My friend assures me that she knows what she's doing, and won't end up looking like Priscilla Presley. The Botox, bangs and impending eye lift are not just for career reasons, she says, but also because they will help her feel better.

"I just want to look as young as I feel," she says.

I understand, believe me. But I can't imagine where this country would be without people like Benjamin Franklin and John Adams and Eleanor Roosevelt and Mother Teresa, all people who didn't look that "fresh" during some of the most productive years of their lives. Would bangs have meant they had even more impact? Would Botox have meant they were smarter or could earn more money?

I don't mean to sound naive. I know in this world many people have "procedures" and feel great about it. But I can't help but wonder if a few lines on the face, a bit of gray in the hair, and perhaps wisdom and experience conveyed in the action of a worker wouldn't be of value to a younger manager.

If not, then maybe the newest employee benefit offering should be a payroll withdrawal option for "Botox or bangs."


Are older workers feeling more pressure about the way they look? What should they do about it, if anything?
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