For all the talk in department meetings about employees not having “enough bandwidth,” or suffering from “information overload,” people aren’t machines. To be successful, a manager has to understand the perspectives of his or her employees. Granted, there’s a difference between being someone’s boss and their counselor, but treating your employees like interchangeable rack-mounted servers won’t work in the long run.

Of course, organizations understand this, and the HR departments of most companies spend a good deal of time educating managers about the opportunities and pitfalls of supervising a diverse workforce. In this column, I want to focus on a related issue for technical managers: what to do when most of the people who work for you are a lot younger than you are.

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Games and gadgets
I started thinking about this issue because of a couple of things that happened to me recently. As you may have heard, TechRepublic recently announced that we’re going to be acquired by CNET. (If you missed that news, here’s the article.) As we’ve been meeting internally to discuss different CNET sites, I was amazed by how passionate some of my editors feel about GameSpot, our new parent company’s gaming site.

Now before I become besieged with e-mails from middle-aged guys telling me how playing Soldier of Fortune II: Double Helix with their teenaged son helped them bond in ways that group therapy never could or how Lara Croft has inspired their daughters to take up archeology and martial arts, please understand that I’m not knocking gaming. I’m simply observing that, while there are exceptions, gaming is disproportionately a young person’s avocation—even in IT.

The other event that brought this home to me was an article in The Washington Post by T.R. Reid about Klingeltone, the German term for the ring tones on cell phones in Europe. According to Reid, the latest craze in Europe is to customize your cell phones so that when your phone rings, you hear snippets of the latest song from Madonna or Eminem. (In case you’re interested, you can hear Klingeltone samples online.)

Evidently, this is a big deal in Europe. Reid notes that if you’re on a train, and someone’s phone starts chirping the melody of “Layla,” everyone starts singing along. In a bar, people will start barking whenever some patron’s phone mimics “Who Let the Dogs Out?”

Now I like technology as much as the next guy, but the thought of being trapped in a restaurant or a line at the DMV and having to listen to this kind of cell-phone karaoke is enough to make me want to find some wooden shoes to throw into the gears of the nearest machine.

When I mentioned this article to some people last week, their reaction seemed to break down on generational lines: The younger you were, the more likely you were to embrace the concept.

Serious stuff
Of course, gaming and ring tones are superficial examples, but they illustrate a real issue for technical managers. The fact is that the age of your workforce matters.

If you are significantly older than most of your employees, you could have a more difficult time understanding their cultural references, increasing the chances for miscommunication. More importantly, you may project your own career aspirations onto your younger subordinates, overlooking the fact that their concept of “success” might not match yours.

We’ve talked about this before. When discussing employee retention, I pointed out research that demonstrated younger employees place different value on some benefits. For example, younger employees are more likely to view the opportunity to travel as a reason to stay with a company, while older employees usually view company travel as anything but a benefit. To take another example, while employees of all ages value flexible work schedules, this benefit seems to become more important as employees get older.

If you’re not careful, policies you launch to help improve employee morale could actually backfire and cause workplace tension, due to the age of your staff. An obvious example is poorly crafted “family-friendly” corporate initiatives that are sometimes perceived as benefiting middle-aged employees with children at the expense of younger, childless workers.

What should you do?
In most organizations, the HR department works with IT managers when formulating employment policies, so let’s concentrate on the things you should be looking for when dealing with employees that are younger than you are:

  • Act your age: Being cognizant of age doesn’t mean that you should pander to your younger employees or (worse yet) try to act like you’re suddenly 25 again. After all, did you ever see anything more pathetic than those pictures of Frank Sinatra wearing a white and orange Nehru jacket and collarless shirt during the 1960s?
  • Verify your assumptions: Spend a little more time verifying your assumptions about what your younger employees are looking for, both in terms of professional development and in what they like (or don’t like) about their current positions. If you’re any kind of manager, your instincts will usually be right, but it never hurts to be sure. After all, the IT landscape doubtless looks much different to a 25-year-old today than it did when you were 25—even if that was only six or seven years ago.
  • Relate your experiences to theirs: There’s probably no way you can keep yourself from occasionally telling a “Back in my day…” anecdote to your staff. (I seem to recall telling a few such stories myself.) When you do so, try to provide context that will relate to your employees’ experiences.
  • Don’t patronize: Just because some of your employees may be younger than you are doesn’t mean they don’t care about their careers or that they don’t know anything. Perhaps I’ve just been lucky, but I’ve been struck by how much more serious TechRepublic’s 20-something employees are than what I remember about my peers when we were that age. Judging from the level of debate in the discussion centers and forums here at TechRepublic, I’m guessing that’s true in your organization as well.

Closing the generation gap

What strategies do you use to stay in touch with younger workers? To add to this discussion, post your comment to this article. Each week, the person who provides the best feedback to an Artner’s Law column will win a TechRepublic coffee mug.