How Can We Stay Union-Free Despite Our Generational Differences?

A multi-generational workforce is common in most organizations today. It could be three, four, or even five generations, and each generation is unique in terms of values, perspectives, and needs. For managers, the challenge of staying union-free is finding ways to unite the workforce around a common purpose while meeting the needs of each generation. It is possible when employee engagement training occurs at all management levels. The generational lens becomes a set of opportunities to develop a satisfied workforce.

Generations of Perspectives

The multi-generational workforce today consists mostly of four generations. The youngest Baby Boomer is 56 years old (born 1946-1964), and many continue to work in jobs they have held for decades. The next three groups are Generation X (born 1965-1980), millennials (born 1981-1996), and the youngest group called Generation Z (born 1997-present). 

The clues to staying union-free in a multi-generational workplace are to keep in mind the differences in the perspectives of the various groups. It is the only way to know how to accommodate generational differences in a way that creates a unified, engaged workforce. 

Baby Boomers

Many baby boomers are still working are on the path to retirement and are likely uninterested in workplace turmoil. They participated in the 1960s counterculture and joined unions when U.S. manufacturing offered the best paying jobs. The main issues with baby boomers often center on their resentment of younger generations for thinking they are more knowledgeable because of their mastery of technologies. Gen Z and Millennials are arguably the most influential groups in the workplace today because of the sheer size of the populations and their significant differences when compared to the generations before them. 

Millennials

Millennials have a high interest in social and political issues and were the first group to extensively use social media to network and comment on their employers and workplace conditions and insist on Corporate Social Responsibility. The millennial population is the most diverse group of employees the U.S. has experienced. It is no surprise they expect employers to treat people equitably, eliminate bias in policies and procedures, and to become partners in helping their employees pursue personal and work goals. They want empowerment.

Millennials want to enjoy their work and to know how it contributes to business success. Unlike baby boomers, they are less willing to tolerate working conditions they do not like or approve of and will quickly go online to say so or to promote union organizing. This is the generation that began “organizing” online (the non-union union or alt-labor) using new approaches to influence the market’s view of the brand. It’s easy to call millennials the “pro-union generation.” 

Generation Z

The youngest generation, Gen Z, is now entering the workforce in fast-growing numbers. It is a very changed environment than baby boomers, and even older millennials have experienced. This is the first generation raised from birth in a digitally connected world, so they are very comfortable working autonomously. Many have been earning income via social media, gaming, and in other ways, before entering the workforce and grew up during the Great Recession, making them more financially focused than millennials. 

Gen Z believes diversity and inclusion, pay equity, and unbiased policies and procedures are “rights” and not something to be bestowed on them by employers, so to speak. Along the same lines, Gen Z is very vocal about social and political issues. A good example is the five teenagers who formed the #NeverAgain movement after their friends were shot and killed at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. This group of teenagers staged a national protest to demand stricter gun regulation and more involvement of youth in politics. They continue to conduct online campaigns, among other activities. 

Millennials and Gen Z are generally pro-union or pro-organizing if passionate about a cause. As an employer, you must face balancing the needs of four generations of employees. The increase in the number of workers walking out of the workplace, even when they cannot legally strike, reflects the interest in organizing in some manner. The unions are not blind to this fact and are working hard to attract the younger workers following a long period of declining membership. 

10 Tips for Keeping a Multi-Generational Workforce Union Free

How can you stay union-free with such a complex mix of attitudes, perspectives, beliefs, and needs in the workforce? The following are ten tips to keep a multi-generation workforce union-free.

1. Identify common ground 

Transparent communication is crucial in today’s workforce. Before technology and digital-savvy employees, top-down command-and-control communication was the model. In the modern workforce, that model is a sure path to employees developing an interest in unions. The new communication model is transparency, open-door policy, responsiveness, and employers who take an interest in the needs of their employees. 

A good way to start is identifying the issues or challenges that are common across generations and use them to connect with the workforce. Focus on the things the generations have in common, like equity, a desire for financial stability, and a desire to balance personal and work lives. Find common ground in employee feedback, and you have the path to communicating with all generations of workers before and during and after union organizing.

2. Listen to your employees

Listening to employee feedback provides a wealth of information, but one of the most important things it provides is insights into what employees are thinking. It is the way to find the items of most concern to them and the issues causing generational conflicts. For example, a millennial supervisor believes baby boomers and Gen X-ers ignore him, or millennials and Gen Z do not believe seniority should determine advancement. Developing active listening skills in managers and supervisors will make employees from any generation feel comfortable about sharing their issues.

3. Use technology to its fullest 

Frequent communication is crucial, and technology makes it easy. A union focused website can serve both of the first tips when it gives employees a forum for asking questions and getting answers. The questions will enable you to identify common ground, get employee feedback, gain insights, and craft responses. Communicate in multiple ways, too – videos, video conferencing, email, virtual meetings, website, social media, one-on-one meetings, chat rooms, mobile technology, etc.

4. Give employees a voice

Whitney Yax, a labor movement organizer for the Communications Workers of America District 1, said in an interview, “I always think of unions as offering a voice, a role in decision-making at work.” This sums up the entire union organizing effort – give employees a voice. She points out there is an increase in younger members, and the desire to be active union participants. Any employees who do not believe they have a voice are not engaged employees, but millennials and Gen Z, in particular, are not willing to stand on the sidelines. They are activists about issues that matter to them. 

5. Ensure recognition is meaningful across generational lines

The research of Jennifer Deal, co-author of the book What Millennials Want from Work: How to Maximize Engagement in Today’s Workforce, found that most intergenerational conflicts are mostly about power or clout. Older people are likely to want their experience and knowledge valued and appreciated. Younger generations want their creativity and innovative ideas recognized and appreciated. Everyone wants to have a voice and be treated with respect. They want praise and recognition when earned.

6. Identify the target issues for generations 

Unions target certain generations in many cases. They are trying to speak the language of younger generations, which means you must do so also. Many senior leaders are older people who make it clear they “don’t get the younger generations.” They may not do so in front of the workforce, but a lack of policies that address younger generation issues sends a clear message. If benefits are mostly focused on baby boomer needs and flexible work schedules are out of the question, one or two generations are satisfied, but the others are unhappy. Who is driving the conversation in your organization? 

During union organizing, the conversation needs to address the important issues for each generation, and it needs to be a positive dialogue. Emphasize the positive aspects of working for the business, whether it is the wage and benefits structure, career opportunities, diversity and inclusion policies, etc. By the way, diversity is a given for the younger generations. People are people, and inclusion is a real issue. Unions understand this and often focus on the aspects of inclusion as a result.

7. Create a culture that celebrates generational diversity 

You can strengthen a culture of generational inclusion by taking purposeful steps, like ensuring teams are cross-generational and celebrating multiple generations on “generational days” similar to “cultural days.” Leverage the generations by letting an older manager good with technology train and mentor others uncomfortable with a tech tool or create opportunities for older and younger employees to share knowledge, i.e., knowledge from experience in exchange for technical training. A positive culture is good for everyone and removes many of the issues that drive people to unions.

8. Convey a common purpose to the workforce 

Getting employees on board with the core values and mission of the organization creates a common bond or purpose among generations. Unions target particular age groups because it creates a wedge between generations that leads to an unhappy workforce. For example, baby boomers may not want to organize and pay dues at their life stage, so resent younger coworkers creating what they see as an unnecessary conflict in the workplace. The bond is broken because there are no longer common goals. 

9. Create a collaborative environment 

Younger generations grew up in a connected world that extended their reach globally. It is common today for an employee protest in the U.S. to gain the support of people in other countries. The connectivity has led them to expect their managers and supervisors to be more transparent by allowing them to participate in decision-making. The key is to create a collaborative environment that embraces all generations, and that circles back around to having a forum where all employees can be heard and believe their input will be valued.  

10. Play no favorites due to stereotyping 

Are most of the interesting projects assigned to older employees? Are millennials and Gen Z always chosen for technology projects? The message sent to the workforce through leadership behaviors is that stereotyping or implicit bias and keeping dividing lines between generations is okay. Stereotyping frequently leads to prejudice, which then leads to negative consequences in the workplace. It is a barrier to shared goals and common purpose and is often found in the way Human Resources policies are constructed. 

Stereotyping and prejudice can easily lead to unionizing because unions represent every one of every race, gender, age, and other demographics. If your organization does not have a unified workforce, the employees are more likely to look for a common purpose by joining a union. 

Effective Communication is the Bridge Between Generational Differences

If you are getting the impression that communication is the link that ties generations together, you are right. Effective leadership communication, a collaborative workforce, and a positive culture all depend on regular two-way communication between employees and management. Effective communication systems give employees a voice, break down stereotypes, guide inter-generational transparent discussions, and leads to conflict resolution – all important to staying union-free

It is sometimes tempting for managers to step away from addressing generational differences due to the complexity of four generations of employees and rely on strict workplace policies and procedures instead as a safe territory. In the meantime, the union is targeting one or two generations of employees and are willing to talk about the issues like economic stability, student loan debt, work-life balance, work assignments made based on a manager’s 0personal feelings, poor workplace culture, faulty leadership and so on. Managing multiple generations may have its challenges, but it is much easier when your leaders are trained on high-quality employee engagement practices and positive employee relations.

Projections and its partner companies UnionProof and A Better Leader provide high-quality employee engagement training and tools that leaders need through video, web, and eLearning options – ranging from leadership training to customized union-free dark websites. The Projections staff are always ready to assist organizations with improving employee relations and staying union-free. 

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About the author

Walter Orechwa

Walter is Projections’ CEO and the founder of UnionProof & A Better Leader. As the creator of Union Proof Certification, Walter provides expert advice, highly effective employee communication resources and ongoing learning opportunities for Human Resources and Labor Relations professionals.

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