Working with a diverse generational workforce – what does the research say?

Working with a diverse generational workforce – what does the research say?

This article was provided by Garth Sheriff CPA, CA, CIA, MAcc of Sheriff Consulting. Garth will be hosting the sessions at CPA Alberta’s Forum for Members in Industry.


Generational stereotypes

Discussing the attributes of the different generations can be a challenge. Typically, we think in generational stereotypes because they are quick and accessible.

As an example, for each of the generation categories below, what is the first word you that you think of to describe them?

  • Baby boomers | 1946-1964
  • Generation X | 1965-1982
  • Millennials | 1983-2004
  • Generation Z | born after 2004

The research (which we will cover in detail later in this article) predicts the immediate stereotypes we associate with a generational category tend to be negative, especially with regards to the youngest category in the workforce.

It is interesting to note that there is no one consensus for when a generational category begins or ends. For example, on Wikipedia, Generation X is broadly defined as early-to-mid 1960s to the early-1980s. You will find some articles that refer more specifically to Generation X starting from a number of years, including 1965, 1966 and 1967. This is important, as we typically associate a generation with the major cultural events that they may have experienced. For example, with Millennials, it may be that they are the generation of Google and smart phones with complete access to information at any point of the day. But the stereotypes associated with this generation may then be about how they use that immediate access to technology (e.g. social media).

Using generational stereotypes

Below are a few of the questions I pose in the polling questionnaire that I use in my course, Bridging the Generational GAAP (and, yes, that is an accounting pun). Read the three questions below and think about which generational category you might associate this behaviour with:

1. A colleague on your team tells you that they would like to start work at 9:30 a.m. and end at 3:30 p.m. everyday.

2. A colleague on your team always likes to share their own past experiences during strategy meetings.

3. A colleague on your team prefers to wear business formal attire even if the client is business casual.

Based on previous responses to my survey, the majority of respondents selected millennial, generational X, and baby boomers, respectively. The question is not whether you were right or wrong, but whether the use of generational stereotypes helps your relationships with your colleagues.

What does the research say?

In a recently published research paper in the Journal of Ethics 1 authors Kelly Pledger Weeks and Caitlin Schaffert interviewed different generations to ask for their definition of meaningful work. What they found is that the definition was similar across generations. Their main research question was: if most generations agree on the definition of meaningful work, then why is there conflict or disagreement across generational team members? The answer: negative stereotypes.

That different generations agree on core work values was also supported by a recent E&Y study2. Positive values included:

  • Competitive pay and benefits
  • Being able to work flexibly and still be on track for a promotion
  • Not working excessive overtime

What does this research mean for improving our relationships within diverse generational teams?

Most importantly, seek first to understand then be understood3, the great advice contained in Dr. Stephen Covey’s popular book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In other words, it is human to use generational stereotypes, but do not let this define your working relationships; instead, be curious, ask questions, and find shared values. This will lead to stronger relationships within teams and better results.

To hear more from me on workplace topics, like De-Stress for Success and Thinking Outside the Box, please join me at the CPA Alberta’s Forum for Members in Industry.


1 K.P. Weeks & C.J. Schaffert, ‘Generational Differences in Definitions of Meaningful Work A Mixed Methods Study, Journal of Business Ethics (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-017-3621-4 2 http://www.ey.com/Publication/vwLUAssets/EY-global-generations-a-global-study-on-work-life-challenges-across-generations/$FILE/EY-global-generations-a-global-study-on-work-life-challenges-across-generations.pdf 3 Stephen Covey Quotes. BrainyQuote.com, Xplore Inc, 2018. https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/stephen_covey_636491, accessed September 7, 2018.

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