Unleashing the true power of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within the workplace requires a fresh perspective that transcends generational boundaries. In an era where multiple generations coexist in the workforce, it is crucial to recognize the unique strengths and challenges each generation brings to harness their collective strengths and build a thriving and healthy workplace.
Unlike any other time in history, there are currently five generations in the workforce: Traditionalists (AKA “the Silent Generation”), Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z. This cross-generational work environment has posed many questions about inclusivity and DEI in general. With Gen Z beginning to enter the workforce in larger numbers, new issues regarding DEI that have historically been overlooked are now becoming more prominent.
A brief history of DEI and its importance
According to McKinsey, DEI “are three closely linked values held by many organizations that are working to be supportive of different groups of individuals, including people of different races, ethnicities, religions, abilities, genders, and sexual orientations.”
Essentially, diversity focuses on workforce representation; equity provides the differentiated support and opportunity to everyone to ensure everyone has what they need to thrive; and inclusion embraces everyone and their varying layers of identity to ensure everyone feels respect, valued, and a sense of belonging. Studies on DEI in the workplace have shown that it helps strengthens the organization.
DEI helps companies respond to challenges more efficiently because it utilizes the wide array of backgrounds and experiences of their workforce. It also ensures acquiring and maintaining top talent, which further helps strengthen an organization’s bottom lines.
However, most DEI efforts focus on race/ethnicity and gender, completely disregarding other vital aspects of diversity. “Employers should be mindful to see diversity as a myriad of lived experiences and identities, of which age is also one type or kind of diversity,” explains Krystal Allen, founder and CEO of K. Allen Consulting™.
Building a culture that centers DEI also provides a unique value proposition for an organization when it considers the ecosystem of its competitors. A company that centers DEI better reflects the values of society at large, enabling them to better serve their customers and clients. It enhances cultural competency, improves customer satisfaction, and helps organizations understand and meet the needs of diverse markets. In an increasingly globalized world, organizations that prioritize DEI are better positioned to adapt to changing demographics, tap into new markets, and drive long-term growth.
Understanding generational diversity and the importance of a multigenerational approach to DEI
The current workforce environment is historically unique, as we are witnessing five generations collaborating in one work setting. Notably, each one of these generations grew up in very particular circumstances, and these experiences play a vital role in their work ethic. For example, Traditionalists who were shaped by the Great Depression and World War II are more motivated by respect and recognition. Conversely, most Gen Zers only began to experience life following 9/11 and the Great Recession, and have had access to technology since early childhood, leading them to highly value inclusivity, individuality, and creativity.
A multigenerational approach to DEI recognizes that no single generation holds a monopoly on wisdom or expertise, but rather that a collective effort is needed to create a thriving workplace culture. Baby Boomers, for example, often bring years of experience, institutional knowledge, and mentorship capabilities to their coworkers. Millennials, on the other hand, are keen to bring fresh perspectives, technological proficiency, and a focus on social responsibility.
Understanding the values, beliefs, communication styles, and work ethic of these five generations helps organizations take advantage of each generation’s unique strengths and what they can bring to the table. By embracing all aspects of DEI, employers can not only widen their pool of top talent, but better retain them by bringing together unique insights and understandings of different demographics and identities.
Overcoming generational bias and stereotypes
Overcoming any form of bias, including generational bias, starts before employees are even hired. It comes from within the company and trickles down. When hiring, the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) suggests making sure that the job posting is inclusive of everyone regardless of age. Benefits and incentive programs should also reflect the needs of different generations. For example, not all incentives appeal to all generations — differentiate them to ensure everyone feels included.
It’s important to recognize that sometimes people hold biases against generations. Even though Millennials and Gen Z have been exposed to technology at a younger age, that doesn’t mean they are necessarily experts in everything tech-related. “Don’t carry age and generational bias into employee selection,” Allen warns. “There are marketing departments that refuse to hire people over 40 years old because they think they don’t know how to adapt to new trends or do the job effectively. Ageism is just as real as racism and sexism.”
Instead of focusing on age to complete certain jobs or tasks, it’s best to ask around and see what everyone is comfortable with, and then provide training to bring everyone on the same page. This fosters inclusivity and encourages employees to follow the training that can best help foster collaboration.
Strategies for implementing a multigenerational DEI initiative
As with any other DEI initiative, a multigenerational approach needs to be thoughtful and strategic. To achieve this, Allen suggests implementing the following three steps:
- Assess organizational needs: “When employers think about acquisition, team culture and climate, and professional development, they need to keep in mind different ways of thinking and modes of operation for their employees across different age groups. This entails things such as neurodiversity, socioeconomic background, race, and more,” Allen notes. By conducting a thorough assessment of the organization’s DEI practices, it will be easy to determine if there are any gaps — specifically age and generational gaps — and evaluate why those gaps are present, as well as how they can be resolved.
- Set clear objectives: Define clear and measurable objectives that align with the organization’s overall DEI goals and the organization’s overarching objectives. For example, instead of promoting people simply based on credentials (such as a specific degree) or age, Allen suggests, “Employers should ensure that individuals are given an equitable opportunity to display their levels of effectiveness. Organizations should never assume competency based on a person’s age, but rather on whether or not they have a track record of results. Therefore, this provides people with performance-based tasks that help assess their ability to perform as opposed to being passed or overlooked based on generational assumptions.”
- Establish training, education, and mentorship: Organizations should offer training programs and educational resources to anyone who feels they need more information or insight on any given topic. Establishing cross-generational mentor opportunities helps facilitate this exchange of intergenerational knowledge. By promoting curiosity, organizations help build stronger relationships across generations and establish a sense of shared community in the workplace.
While implementing DEI initiatives has been talked about for over a decade, they are still difficult to incorporate in businesses without some degree of pushback. The upside is that, with each year, more and more businesses adopt DEI as a core value and work toward influencing other businesses to take on this necessary endeavor. “Businesses don’t need to lose their identity as an institution,” says Allen, “but they should use that data to soothe pain points, establish goals, and customize how they set people up to succeed.”