Variations on a theme: Diversity in the Workplace

As a student of American University, we often learn about the vital importance of a pluralistic society, wherein people of all types (be that gender, age, ethnicity, &c. ad infinitum) can coexist and thrive together no matter the challenges that approach them.  As I mentioned previously in a post on this blog, I attended AU at the undergraduate level as well, so I have received all sorts of wisdom and insights into the process of enabling various groups of people to live and work together successfully, but there are times when the direct skills or knowledge one has about diversity can simply fail to carry the day when attempting to implement it.  I am not speaking about problems of accepting difference of gender, race, or the like – my office here at ICMA is actually quite diverse, and we all get along extremely well along those lines.  The problem I refer to is one of different ages, and the effects that ends up having on learning, communication, and by far most importantly: expectations about learning and communication.

At the monthly all-staff meeting we had earlier today, we split into multiple small groups (keeping in mind there were close to 80 or 90 people in that room), and had a discussion of the expectations we should have for our corporate culture, and in turn the expectations that the culture should have of us, the employees.  The content of the meeting is besides the point, and that right there is the best way to explain what I am trying to say: all of the small groups ended up being composed of different ages and backgrounds amongst the staff, and while we all get along very well, it could be discerned that people raised in different environments and years end up having methods of discussion, but more importantly, expectations of that discussion which can experience some friction.  Regardless of what one thinks of the labels, our generation (people currently in their early 20’s) or “the millennial generation” has a discernible tendency towards the Web 2.0 type of mindset, in that anyone and everyone should feel free to all discussions what they have to offer.  That is a very generation-specific type of outlook: people who were born 40 or 50 years ago and have worked in the business (including non-profits, to be clear) world have been raised and taught the opposite, that a person must sort of “put their time in” and work for a long time before they should feel/be qualified to contribute to group discussions involving people of different levels of seniority.  Obviously, as with all generations, these outlooks are not true of every person (and are sometimes the opposite), but also as is true with generalizations, they exist since they do often properly discern behaviors in a group of people.  Getting back to the small group meetings of earlier this morning, everyone was completely polite to each other and wanted to work to discuss the questions at hand, about corporate culture.  At the same time, though, one could discern that there were a few serious fundamental disagreements to how to approach the problem that weren’t voiced, but could be felt: watching some of the younger people, one could see fidgeting when an older, senior employee would sort of pontificate when making a point.  At the same time, older staffers could be found to appear surprised when new employees (in one case, it was his first day on the job today) felt comfortable contributing.  Again, not to overgeneralize, there really were older employees who sought to explicitly facilitate the participation of younger staff by asking in the group “well what do you think, Younger Staffer?” and in one case, a younger staffer said “well you have worked here for a bunch of years Wise Old Employee, so what do you think?” (names were cleverly and seamlessly changed to protect identities, but the gist of their comments remain true).

Overall, I suppose my point here is twofold: first of all, never buy into generalizations about coworkers in any way, and seek to examine the circumstances for yourself; you might be surprised by what you find when going in without someone else’s notions causing you to see things their way.  Secondly, however, and perhaps more importantly to the everyday type of internship concerns that we all face when working these types of positions, I would just advise that diversity in the workplace is a great thing, but in cases like differences of age (and therefore different expectations of interaction), be wary that people can come to any and all conversations with very, very different ideas of how to communicate, and this can affect many things.  And, to come full circle, I still thoroughly approve of pluralism and bringing multiple viewpoints to the table, as I could cite any number of ways in which my office has benefited from diversity; I merely seek to warn that differing conceptions of how to act need to be explicitly kept in mind, in order to make a diverse office a successful office.