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Phyllis weiss haserot
Phyllis weiss haserot

President & Founder

212 593-1549

Articles: Multi-Generational Solutions Archives

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Resolving Intergenerational Tensions In The Workplace

Amidst a swirl of divergent forces, firms are being challenged as never before at their core management strategies, operations and human resource philosophies levels. With slings and arrows launched both externally and internally, the next few years will be telling to the future composition of the profession. Since law (and accounting, consulting, etc,) are service businesses with the "product" or service provided being primarily people and their knowledge and judgment, the people and how they are treated will determine the outcome - who survives, who thrives, what organizations look like.

Given the ever more diverse potential customer and client population, all businesses are taking diversity of personnel more seriously. "Diversity" has been defined most commonly as increasing the number of hiring and growth opportunities for women and minorities in firms and legal departments. This is essential but is too limiting a definition.

The curtains of the diversity tent must be thrown open wider. Within both the majority and minority populations of firms and other organizations, a greater respect for diverse perspectives, experiences, talents, skills and capabilities needs to be built. Unless people are valued for a broader range of contributions than purely legal skills as defined by the law school curriculum, firms will be overshadowed and surpassed by other types of professional services firms, and legal departments will be largely considered "overhead that gets us and keeps us out of trouble" rather than a business-building asset.

I think that we have to look beyond gender and race and ethnic origin to other areas that affect even "majority" populations in the workplace. Age is certainly one of them. We have a renewed focus on generational issues, which gained the spotlight particularly through Generation X and their establishment (not a Gen X word) of Internet companies or dot-coms. Now the tenets on which those organizations were built are being challenged as the very youth dominated managements found they could not take most of the companies into the profitable arena. The youngest generations in the workplace need to give more credence and respect to old economy thinking or more traditional economics as well as benefit from the judgment and maturity that comes from experience.

Clashes of generations have always been a factor, and some confrontation and difference in approach and thinking is generally healthy. Sometimes radical differences are just what the circumstances need. Yahoo, as an example of an Internet company that actually has been profitable, has found as the economic wind changed that the lack of diversity of age and thinking (cultural) has brought the growth and success to a halt. Insular cultures cannot sustain growth or embrace new ideas and new people with differing ideas. The company now has to face possibly wrenching detours, firings and an infusion of new hirings to adjust to the realities of the marketplace.

Elsewhere as well, including in law firms, there needs to be more willingness to benefit from what the people of different generations bring to the table. Each has to let go of the "entitlement mentality" or the "playing-by-the-old-rules mentality." Gen X is not the only group to watch. Starting now there is Gen Y knocking on the door. They are expected to clash with Gen X in outlook and some values; this is already evident with entry level hires. Gen Y may be showing even more entitlement mentality than the younger part of the Gen X cohort. Nonetheless, they will all have to live together in the workplace, along with the Boomers who are not in a hurry to give up power, influence and their quite hefty sense of worth as movers in the business and cultural world.

Frank Genovese, publisher of the new magazine Darwin, raises salient points (in the March 2001 issue). He wrote,

"I wonder if the dotcom dilemma would've been so severe if more of those youthful startups had been peppered with older businesspeople - men and women with the wisdom of experience and common sense that no MBA program can accelerate. So many of the dotcoms were never really in touch with the realities of the marketplace because they didn't mirror it.

But diversity isn't limited to ethereal startups. Too many businesses, big and small, paint themselves in monotone hues, even if they don't do it with premeditated calculation. It seems as though they're not paying enough attention to the issue because they don't recognize that it's important."

He concludes "If you spend time now to explore this topic, you'll be less likely later to appear as a headlined company drowning in legal fees with a damaged public image and a hostile workforce."

With three generations solidly represented and a fourth just entering, most firms find that there are understanding and communication gaps between the partner and director level people and the associates and younger staff. These gaps can probably be attributed to different generational backgrounds and to personal behavioral styles, as well as how different generations expect professional resposibilities to be delegted and accountability ensured.


What are we hearing from the two generations most prevalent in the workplace now?
(Warning: These are generalizations)

              Boomers Say                             Generation X Says

 Gen X has a poor work ethic  I want a life!
 Be in the office long hours  I don't need anyone looking over  my shoulder: face time;  micro-managing is non-productive
 We learned ourselves; learn on  your time; clients won't pay for  training  There is not enough training,  mentoring, direction
 Big salaries require long hours to  earn and support them  I want a life; I have education debt
 In-person meetings are better  Older guys are inefficient, don't  relate to technology
 We're here to work; not play  We want a fun working  environment
 We prefer large personal spaces  We prefer opportunities for  collaboration
 Have regard for precedent,  experience  I want a hearing and credit for my  ideas
 This is the way our firm does it  Innovate, let me use my creativity. I  don't get respect. People hoard  information that I need.
 People need to pay their dues.  There is no security  I need to make big money as soon  as possible because we won't be  as well off for retirement as our  parents. There is no security.

So we have here what is clearly a divergence of work and life objectives. Either can make a strong argument for their viewpoint, but the fact is, they have to work together. Some ideas for resolution are presented in the Sidebar following. But first, how can firms evaluate which approaches, attributes and behaviors produce the best results for the firm and for clients?

Firms need to look at their own worker success profiles - at every level. Most professional firms have not given more than superficial attention to what makes for success in their firms. There is no magic formula, even for those firms that are annually in the front of the line to hire what they optimistically, if superficially, expect to be "the best and brightest," that is, the top of the class of the highest ranked law schools. And even if they should be proven right in their recruiting (there is little evidence of this), few firms have devoted the sincere attention necessary to keep their high potential people happy and fulfilled. That is not what they think the firm's mission is about.

The other side of the coin is assessment of incoming and early-stage associates to help them - and the firm - better understand their life and work objectives, behavioral styles and team role preferences. For example, there are instruments we use, with a great deal of research supporting them, that are valuable for training and self-awareness of interpersonal behavior, learning and communication styles, and values; others help to achieve productivity enhancement for the roles people play and identify work expectations and how to fulfill them. These instruments can be incorporated into the ongoing coaching and professional development process.

In order to resolve tensions and improve collaboration and teamwork, it is important to:

  • increase familiarity with how each generation sees the world and what motivates them;
  • become aware of behavioral style differences, strengths and weakness across generational lines;
  • use collaborative techniques to begin to change/modify/adjust the quality of interaction among the various levels of authority and the generations.


I recommend that the best way to address the issues and show actual progress in awareness and making new habits is a three or four step process which encompasses large groups and small group activities.

A large group seminar/workshop can deal with generational differences and their implications. This includes: a brief primer on characteristics and differences of three (and soon four) generations in the workplace; facilitated discussion of inter-generational conflicts or tension points in a firm that affect client service delivery and marketing; exploration and identification of opportunities for cooperation specifying strategies and tactics for getting the generations to appreciate each other's strengths; discussion of examples in which multi-generational teams work - capitalizing on the assets of each, building trust and respect. Then personnel at all levels come away knowing how understanding generational differences helps to understand and serve clients better.

The next step addresses each individual, using an assessment instrument completed and interpreted to provide an understanding of one's own and other people's personal behavioral styles. This helps to increase inter-generational understanding too, as people see that styles cross generational boundaries.

With this foundation, I recommend breakout groups on different issues that were pinpointed in the seminar/workshop discussion. These discussions will enable inter-generational and multi-dimensional group problem-solving based on issues determined previously in key player interviews before the large group session.

Another piece of the puzzle that will eventually lead to better inter-generational collaboration is an assessment of work expectations using an assessment tool for self-reporting, analysis and action planning. This research-based self-assessment provides feedback on how to take the initiative to get one's expectations met and adjust expectations when necessary.

Questionnaires and interviews with young associates and laterals, as well as exit interviews with those who do leave, provide a wealth of information for firms to understand employees' individual and generational work and lifestyle objectives. This information can be used to redesign and restructure, as necessary, the work environment to meet the needs of individuals, different generations and the firm as a whole. Individuals should be asked early on to prepare three-to-five year work and life goals and plans, which will be reviewed and updated with them periodically by partner-mentors, directors of associate relations or outside consultants.

From their own perspectives, each generation may be justified and consistent in their views. Generation X is discontent and frustrated in the workplace. Baby Boomers have been getting to feel that way too (ameliorated by high compensation in good years). Generation Y probably will be frustrated too unless greater diversity and flexibility is instituted for the long-term and becomes a core part of the "professional business." Law firms, as well as all businesses, need to embrace and truly appreciate age/generational diversity. Members and employees need to see the value of dealing with intergenerational issues and tensions promptly and with sensitivity to all viewpoints.

This article appeared in Of Counsel, August, 2001.



The differing views between Boomers and Generation X set out above may be addressed as listed below.

  • Look to clients, Deloitte & Touche, and Ernst & Young, for life balance practices. Plan ahead and balance workload.
  • First work out set objectives and end products expected.

    — It's OK to work late outside the office as long as you are accessible and meet deadlines.

    — The supervisor must be accessible too for questions and feedback.
  • Provide “just in time”, task-related learning.
  • Be flexible on hours, compensation, switching tracks.
  • Learn to run efficient, productive meetings, brief, detailed. Train for technology use.
  • Lighten up; create a conducive environment, provide perks if long hours are required.
  • When offices are redesigned, provide flexible spaces that encourage collaboration.
  • Give people responsibility for their own piece of a project from start to finish. Collaborate on goals.
  • Give leeway for presenting new solutions at first in limited situations; give prompt feedback and guidelines.
  • Consider restructuring compensation and tracks based on merit and amount of effort the individual is willing to expend.