Culture

By Melissa Campeau

 

The baby boom generation has designs on staying in the workforce considerably longer than any generation before them. Recruiting and retaining them could be critical to your organization’s success

 

There’s an opening for a senior manager within your organization and six internal candidates have tossed their hats in the ring. One applicant, Carol, is by far the most qualified. She dazzles in the interview and draws on experience and training to make a compelling case for herself. Carol happens to be 72.

 

Does this change anything? How your organization answers that question may reveal how it will fare as Canada’s boomers move into their silver years.

 

With mandatory retirement at age 65 removed from the Human Rights Code in 2006, and the first wave of boomers just beginning to hit this (formerly) landmark age, it’s conceivable and even likely that many of your workers intend to keep their office keys and parking spots for a good while longer.

 

“The whole idea of someone staying in the workplace into their 70s and 80s is going to be pretty commonplace in the near future,” noted Barbara Jaworski, CEO of The Workplace Institute.

 

It’s a shift that presents challenges most workplaces haven’t dealt with before. But it’s also a change that presents some substantial benefits for companies with the right approach.

 

Dodge the skills gap

Boomers – those born during the post-WWII population boom between 1946 and 1964 – make up as much as 46 per cent of the Canadian workforce, by some estimates. The alarming notion of that group retiring from their respective organizations at even roughly the same time has caused understandable and widespread panic in recent years, as people fret over looming skills gaps and impending labour shortages.

 

But with no mandatory retirement age, many boomers are likely to continue contributing to organizations well past the age of 65. Some may want the camaraderie of coworkers, others may find satisfaction in their work and some might simply need the regular paycheque. Smart businesses that take steps to retain and engage those boomers who want to stay in the workforce might prevent – or at least lessen – gaping holes in their organizational charts down the road.

 

There is no substitute for someone who understands their job and their company inside out.

The whole idea of someone staying in the workplace into their 70s and 80s is going to be pretty commonplace in the near future.

 

Experience

“A lot of older workers know the history of the organization,” said Eric Cousineau, managing director and founder of the OC Group. “They know where all the skeletons are buried and they know mistakes made in the past so you don’t need to repeat them.”

 

A fresh-from-university recruit may have the same qualifications on paper, but an older worker brings something intangible to the table.

 

“There are a lot of things that aren’t in job descriptions that we learn by doing,” said Jaworski. “70 per cent of our learning is done by doing.” Which can make someone with 30, 40 years or more of experience an incredibly valuable asset.

 

Knowledge transfer

Keeping boomers as an integral part of the workforce for longer means there’s more opportunity to have them share their knowledge with younger workers who one day hope to fill their shoes. In some businesses, this might happen by way of informal conversations. In others, it might take the form of a formal mentorship program.

 

“The ‘oldsters’ tend to like mentoring the youngsters,” said Cousineau. “They have all this knowledge and appreciate having someone to impart it to.”

 

Adding balance

Another advantage of an older worker is an increased likelihood of a relatively stable life.

“When you’re a younger employee, you may want or need to move around more for work, switching jobs and even cities. You’re going through tons of life changes,” said Jaworski. That tapers as we age, she adds, as part of a natural progression. Rather than seek ways to grow and advance their own careers, studies suggest older workers become more invested in seeing the organization as a whole succeed, meaning they’re likely to be better team players and can act as role models for younger generations.

 

In a multigenerational workforce, older workers tend to have a grounding influence, too.

“One of the things scientists have discovered is that older people have a more balanced brain,” said Jaworski, meaning left and right brain functions find a little more equilibrium. “This often makes older workers much more emotionally steady so they offer a different kind of perspective and bring some stability to a team.”

 

Including boomers as part of the workplace mix promotes a different culture, agrees Cousineau.

 

“It’s more of a caring culture and given Generation Y, that’s a good thing,” he said. “Gen Y and Millennials are generally looking for more of a caring and nurturing environment.”

 

You can teach people new perspectives and new ways to approach a job. 

 

If a skilled worker shortage materializes, boomers may find they have a great deal of choice when considering where to work. And if they’re collecting a pension or have saved well, they may not necessarily need to continue working. In short, in some cases you might need them more than they need you. So the question becomes, how can an organization attract and retain top boomer talent?

 

Invest in your assets

People want to continue to work in an organization that offers some challenges, for one thing.

 

“When somebody gets really good at something, there’s a tendency to want to leave them there,” noted Jaworski. “That’s a reason people leave organizations – they get bored to tears.”

 

A smart organization will offer continuous learning to employees of all ages.

“It might be having your older workers teach your younger workers how to do things; it might be changing an older worker’s role; it might be training them to do different kinds of things,” explained Jaworski.

 

“People tend to want to have training until the day they leave,” noted Jaworski. They want to know where they fit into the organization and how they can make a contribution. “None of that disappears beyond the age of 60,” she added.

 

Cousineau encourages organizations to ask, “Am I still investing in these people with learning and development programs?” Investment leads to productivity and growth, he notes. “You can teach people new perspectives and new ways to approach a job. Something like process mapping, for example, wasn’t used extensively 20 or 30 years ago and now it’s a matter of course in most organizations.”

 

Fair treatment

As with 72-year-old Carol applying for the senior position in your organization, boomer employees want to be given fair treatment and consideration for opportunities to learn and advance. What’s more, they’re legally entitled to it.

 

When it comes to human rights law and the issue of age discrimination, “I like the analogy of comparing it to a beach,” said Christine Thomlinson, an employment lawyer with Rubin Thomlinson LLP. “So even if one grain of sand on the beach is part of the decision-making process, that’s enough to trigger some human rights liability.” That doesn’t mean special treatment needs to be awarded to older workers, just equal treatment. “If you’re going to be thinking about whether the people you currently employ can really carry your company forward, you can do that, but you can’t do it based on their age.”

 

Flexibility

Once you’ve identified the older workers integral to the organization, keep an open mind about how they’d like to structure their worklife.

 

“We know that flexibility is the number one area that older or high-experience workers are interested in,” said Jaworski. This might mean, for example, flexible hours or job sharing. Or it might mean the opportunity to work remotely; either because it’s a preference or because getting around first thing in the morning is a little tougher for a particular older worker.

“It may be easier to get out of bed and be productive in a home office at 8:30 a.m., especially if a job mainly involves time spent on the phone or working on a computer,” said Cousineau.

Benefits, too, can be shaped to better fit an older worker’s needs.

 

“Just because these changes may not be absolutely required, it doesn’t mean flexible working arrangements can’t be offered and made available,” said Thomlinson. “If we’re looking, as a society, at a labour shortage, at potentially a whole lot of people who need to work because they can’t afford to retire and companies who need those workers, there are creative solutions that can be canvassed.”

 

Employers might also find an increasing number of boomer employees requesting a move to independent contractor status. In those cases, Thomlinson encourages caution.

“That’s a path that can be fraught with legal complications,” she warned. “I think companies need to be really cautious before they get seduced into those relationships.”

 

Accommodation

When flexible work arrangements shift from something an employee desires to something he needs, it becomes an accommodation. Legally, an employer has a duty to accommodate an employee up to the point of undue hardship.

 

This might mean if you’re a nurse with back issues, the hospital brings in more equipment to help with heavy lifting or assigns an orderly to help during patient transfers. Or, suggested Jaworski, “For for the construction worker with arthritis, it might mean having a heated cab to use in the wintertime and a joystick to help lighten the load.”

 

For HR workers fearing an onslaught of age-related accommodation requests, Thomlinson notes she hasn’t seen a big uptick in clients dealing with these issues – yet. Requests for accommodation due to disability or changes in family status may indeed be related to age, but they’re not necessarily presenting that way. However, Thomlinson agrees HR pros should be prepared for a surge of accommodation requests from aging boomers in the coming years. “It is coming. The tsunami is coming,” she said.

 

“What will be important for HR professionals to realize is that nothing should change,” said Thomlinson. The analysis in dealing with accommodation requests will be the same. “Don’t jump to conclusions and ideally, don’t say no the moment you’re asked something,” she said. “Hear the request, ask questions if you need to better understand it, then take it away and really analyze it.” Consider whether the request is something the employee genuinely needs.

 

“We recognize what triggers the duty to accommodate is an actual need for accommodation rather than a choice or a preference,” said Thomlinson. “I think with age-related requests, this is going to become really important.” The onus will be on employers to ask the necessary questions and satisfy themselves as to whether a need exists.

 

Vacation and benefits

Another area of preference, rather than need, is vacation time. Some comparatively painless tweaks for many organizations – and one that’s likely to satisfy at least one bullet point on an older workers’ wish list – is to offer the chance to take unpaid time off from work.

 

“The clock is ticking for an older employee,” said Cousineau. “If he wants to take an extra month off in lieu of salary, why wouldn’t you let him? As long as the time away fits within the business cycle, it’s a win for both.”

 

Benefits, too, can be shaped to better fit an older worker’s needs. Cousineau suggests a move to a program where employees have more choice about where to put their benefits dollars.

 

“Suppose I have osteoarthritis,” he said. “$500 a year won’t cover the physiotherapy I need.” A flexible benefits plan would allow the employee to take funds away from another benefit area such as naturopathy or acupuncture and move it sideways to allow for a bigger physio budget. “If I can have greater access to my physiotherapist, I can have greater mobility at work,” pointed out Cousineau.

 

The challenge of planning

A major challenge for organizations with a large boomer population is attempting to map out a company’s trajectory, including succession planning, without knowing what the organization’s attrition is going to be from year to year.

 

“If you don’t know when somebody is planning on leaving, it’s a big risk for an organization,” noted Jaworski. To counter this, she recommends starting some conversations with employees about career trajectories and transitions, and to have those talks fairly early on, if possible. It’s a sticky subject, though, since a conversation can easily veer into age discrimination territory.

 

Thomlinson agrees and recommends succession or career path conversations either happen regularly or are initiated by some kind of marker.

 

“Maybe the reality is that managers are having those discussions with employees all the time or maybe they happen after a certain number of years of service,” she suggested. The trigger could theoretically be age-related, she notes, provided what’s happening is not a negative conversation, which assumes the employer knows what the employee would consider negative. “The discussion can’t be the first step in a path towards exit.” Instead, she recommends checking in with employees regularly and establishing what they envision when it comes to their future with the company. An exit plan might come up in those conversations if the employee offers one. “Or you might discover, lo and behold, there is an accommodation need that exists currently or is on the horizon,” noted Thomlinson.

 

As with workers of any generation, each older worker is either an asset or a liability, says Cousineau. “If they’re an asset, ask yourself, ‘How can I continue to get a return from that asset?’” Investing might take the form of flexible work arrangements, accommodation, training or thoughtful career planning.

 

“The good news is that all these strategies for the 50-plus set are things all employees want,” said Jaworski. An organization that invests well in its older workers is likely discover those efforts pay off with its younger generations as well, helping to build a more balanced culture, improved engagement and retention, and ultimately a stronger organization.