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Bridging the generational gap

Avoid conflicts by learning how different groups approach work

By Curtis Beasley and Cody Williams, University of Central Missouri

You have already been offered a job or an internship at an accounting firm, everything is going great, and you think you will love the atmosphere of the firm as well as the people. However, as you anticipate your start date you may be asking yourself one or more of the following questions.

  • What will upper management expect?
  • How will the partners react to my work ethic?
  • Will everyone have the same future goals?

These are not stupid questions. Millennials (those born between early 1980s and 2000) have always been taught to question our surroundings, and whether it is time to wow our employers on the internship or succeed as a new hire, now is not the time to stop thinking critically. There are many potential stressors of new hires joining a firm, ranging from performing competently to mastering company software. For Millennials, initial job stress can increase due to generational factors at play of which new employees may not even be aware.

Researchers typically classify generational differences impacting Millennials into three categories: communication, need for approval, and work/family life balance. It will benefit you to learn how these differences may seed conflict in the workplace. Such awareness should improve your ability to navigate through differences as they arise, allowing you to position yourself as a contributor to the resolution of such conflicts.

The remainder of this article presents scenarios to explore possible workplace conflicts arising from the generational differences that Millennials may face in the workplace.

Scenario* 1: Communication

The first scenario considers the way Millennials communicate. A Millennial’s communication style is usually perceived as more casual than previous generations’. In this scenario you will see communication style differences exhibited in a staff meeting.

ActionYou walk into a staff meeting a few minutes late after helping a client over the phone. It does not appear to you that the meeting has officially started and you begin to greet everyone.
Supervisor's ReactionYour tardiness may upset your supervisor for two reasons: (1) The expectation is that you should be able to manage your time and arrive to meetings promptly and (2) once arriving to the meeting late you caused a disturbance by greeting your co-workers.
Staff's ReactionMany Millenials will see acknowledging their peers as a sign of respect. The Millennial's perspective may be that it would be rude to walk into a meeting and not say hello.
Possible ResolutionThe staff could acknowledge others through eye contact, a smile, or a nod of the head without creating a disturbance. After the meeting, the staff can email the supervisor or mention on the way out of the meeting that a last minute phone call from a client caused the late arrival.
Scenario* 2: Work/Life Balance

The second scenario explores the Millennial’s desire to maintain a balance between work and home. Millennials tend to want to set strict lines between work and family life.

ActionA supervisor comes by your cubicle and asks you to complete a project ten minutes before you leave for the day. You do not have any major plans, but you tell the supervisor that you will finish it tomorrow morning.
Supervisor's ReactionThe supervisor believes you should not be worked about punching a time clock. Staying 20 to 30 minutes late to complete a project is all part of being a professional.
Staff's ReactionMillennials want to maintain a balance between work and home life. By agreeing to work extra hours and staying late, the Millennial feels that this separation is compromised and that work is too consuming.
Possible ResolutionThe staff member needs to realize the workload will always be there. The supervisor does make a good point - part of being a professional is completing your work. However, the staff member can make a compromise by using current technology and working at home.
Scenario* 3: Need for Approval

The third scenario examines the Millennial’s need for approval. Millennials are accustomed to receiving frequent praise.

ActionYou complete a project for a high profile client at your firm. The next day as you come to work, your supervisor immediately assigns you to another project while failing to mention the good job you just finished.
Supervisor's ReactionThe supervisor does not see the need to offer explicit acknowledgement for what the supervisor regards as just part of the job.
Staff's ReactionMillennials feel the supervisors should congratulate them on a job well done, and may be upset when they are immediately assigned a new task without receiving the praise they believed is deserved.
Possible ResolutionThe staff member needs to understand ta supervisor will not always recognize them for a job well done. However, a few companies are attempting to recognize employees with a work transparency initiative, which will offer recognition to employees for job performance and milestones reached in their careers.

Generational differences exist between earlier generations and the Millennials. These scenarios illustrate that it is going to take compromise and understanding by both groups to co-exist in productive workplaces. When entering into the workforce, acknowledging these generational differences will make your transition more seamless, allowing you to enhance your career with your firm.

Special thanks to: Jo Koehn, Professor of Accountancy at University of Central Missouri, Warrensburg, MO, and David Krug, Professor of Accounting at Johnson county Community College, Overland Park, KS.

*Scenarios adapted from: Klein, Lori, and Shira Liff-Grieff. "From Generation to Generation: Changing Behavioral Perceptions and Expectations in Jewish Nonprofits." Journal of Jewish Communal Service 84. (2009): 328, 331. Web. 30 May 2011.

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