Respect and the Multi-Generational Workplace

By Ruth-Anne Klassen, STC student member

Editor’s note: This article is one of the winners of the 2022 IDL SIG Student Outreach Article-writing Competition, and will be published in intercom‘s May/June 2022 issue. Congratulations, Ruth-Anne!

Many of us have preconceived notions about each generation’s work ethic, knowledge, experience, and commitment to the organization. This article examines the depth of groups present in the workforce, focused on Generation Z, the issue of ageism and how to address it, and ideas for working with people of different ages.

The Generations

There may be up to five generations of employees present in your workplace. As with many social constructs, these generational groups are used as a general way to describe people. However, the groups vary widely, so it is uncommon to identify fully with your assigned age group.

The different age groups that are present in the workforce include:

  • Traditionalists (born 1946 or earlier), who often respect authority, recognize their hard work to get to their position, stay with their employers long-term, and prefer traditional methods of communication like hand-written notes.
  • Baby Boomers (1945 to 1964) act as great team players, prefer leadership tactics like empowerment and collaboration, are skeptical of authority, but place a high value on their personal experience.
  • Generation X (1963 to 1980) is the Latchkey generation, often the children of divorced parents, who are often self-reliant, efficient, and hard-working.
  • Millennials (1981 to 1996) care about growth and development, as well as having autonomy and challenge, and want supportive bosses who care about their well-being and job engagement, not just financial goals.
  • Generation Z (1997 to 2012) vary greatly in their stage of life, from elementary school to early career. Generally, they are dependent on technology, care about diversity, individuality, and personal expression.

If we look more closely at what people are saying about Generation Z, much of it contradicts. For example, many observe that Gen Z is a digital generation, comfortable using phones for everything from schoolwork to ordering food delivery. However, numerous Gen Zs also prefer in-person work, not necessarily remote or digital positions. This includes having training, receiving feedback, and general communication in person. Many are fiscally conservative, spending carefully, choosing stable jobs, and make smart investments to attain financial security. Others are more risk-tolerant and entrepreneurial and prefer the flexibility of gig work or owning their own business.

Maximizing Cross-Generational Experience

Many employees today also deal with ageism, which is discrimination of people based on chronological age. Workers over the age of 40 are more likely to face this kind of discrimination, from rejections in their job search to derogatory myths about them on the job. If we are to separate myth from likelihood, everyone is different and has a niche somewhere. Ageism can be subtle and socially acceptable but still a point of discomfort. To address ageism, don’t just hear what is said about people, but listen to all perspectives and focus on different benefits that different people offer.

Mature workers are experienced in handling workplace politics, are better at communicating, and have helpful traits like caution and levelheadedness. Another approach is to recognize the similarities across generations i.e., desire to receive fair pay and to create a better quality of life.

A critical factor amongst co-workers is the meaning of respect, as a survey showed that different generations define respect differently (Deal, 2006). Older people were more likely to answer that respect comes with age. Younger people, however, were more inclined to answer that respect can be a mutual understanding, regardless of age or seniority, something gained by making good decisions and treating people well. To keep the peace at work, try to give people the respect that everyone wants. Younger people might show respect for older workers’ experience, while older folks can respect the talent, character, and potential of younger people.

Intentional bonding can be fruitful for all involved. Traditional mentoring can allow an older person to pass on their wisdom to a younger person,  giving the less experienced person a leg up in their career. Reverse mentoring is when a younger person helps an older one, often in technology or other skills, they could use in their careers. Cross-generational mentoring also involves cultivating relationships, but if participants are equals, not the one-sided mentoring relationship. Still, the elder share what they know and upgrade their skills and knowledge, while the younger learn from an older person and advance their career.

Diverse Perspectives Bring Value

When I presented this talk in 2021, the resulting conversation focused on learning to respect different people in the workplace, based on our experiences. For all generations, it’s about the different ways we show respect for people, from honoring their preferred name, title, and name pronunciation, to avoiding subtle discrimination. We gained insight about both changing our habits and doing what is intuitive to us when working with others.

It may or may not be a good idea to treat people as we are comfortable doing. Our intuition about how we talk to people might be based on treating people as we wish to be treated, or it might be based on the way that we’ve been taught to interact with people. Certain people, such as those in Gen X, are conditioned to respect people of a greater age by calling them by a professional or relational title (Professor or Mrs., respectively), even when a first-name-basis may be appropriate. However, often, younger generations hesitate to use a title like Mrs., as such titles assume gender and that a surname is a married name, not a maiden name.

However, respecting names is not about guessing or assuming, as it’s a good start to listen to people when they introduce, or re-introduce, themselves. Your child might want to change their name when they reach a certain age, or a transgender person requests to be called by a different name and pronoun than before. Try to pay attention and reproduce how they pronounce their name (especially if you’re not familiar with the name), but it’s better to ask if you forget what to call them. There are so many other aspects of the way we treat other people, but it seems like we can go a long way simply by calling people by their preferred name, title, and pronouns.

In today’s workplace, the older employees are not necessarily in leadership, and it might be a new learning experience to work for a boss younger than yourself. If associates are respecting their leader, regardless of age, and leaders treat their employees well, employees might have a smoother time working in such an egalitarian workplace. We might even learn a lot from younger people, as everyone has something unique to contribute. Regarding respect, we might treat people with respect because civility is a professional attitude, even when we don’t respect them.

Finally, we might improve how we treat people by tackling our actions that come across as discriminatory to other people. If respect is something we have been focusing on for ages, many of us claim that discrimination is something that other people do, either intentionally or as a habit that is part of their character. Though discrimination is unpleasant to deal with, we might remember that discrimination can stem from unconscious bias, which any of us could fall into. That’s where it helps again to listen and change the actions that we base on an unconscious bias, even the actions come from a place of goodwill. For example, we might not correct a person’s spelling, because it assumes the person’s education levels and English as a first language, when there may be exceptions or learning in progress.

Overall, the conversation after the First Fridays @ 5 meeting focused on respecting how people identify themselves and how we might create better workplaces for different people in the workforce.



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