CPA INSIDER

How to communicate with multiple generations

Use these tips to get your message across to colleagues of any age.
By Dawn Wotapka

Now that Generation Z has entered the workforce, colleagues at a single employer may range from those who came of age faxing to ones who posted their prom pictures to Instagram.

"We have five unique generations in the workplace," said Lindsey Pollak, a multigenerational workplace expert and author of the forthcoming book The Remix: How to Lead and Succeed in the Multigenerational Workplace. "You could be working with someone 50 or 60 years older or younger than you."

Members of Generation Z, defined by the Pew Research Center as those born after 1997, are working alongside a small number of members of the Silent Generation, or those born before 1945; the Baby Boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, a group expected to work as long as they can; Generation Xers, born between 1965 and 1980; and the Millennials (sometimes labeled Generation Y), who were born between 1981 and 1996 and currently make up the workforce's largest segment.

How different are they? "One co-worker may remember when the color TV came out; the other one may only have known Netflix," said Jason Dorsey, a Gen Z and Millennial expert at the Center for Generational Kinetics, a generational research and thought-leadership firm based in Austin, Texas.

This matters because the technology that's popular as we grow up tends to shape our communication styles for life, Dorsey explained.

"There is no one perfect way to communicate across generations. They all have different norms," he said. "These communication differences are really causing a lot of problems right now because they are so pronounced."

But there are ways to communicate better with colleagues of any age. Here are some tips:

Establish protocol. Onboarding is critical for setting communication expectations, Dorsey said. Generation Z grew up tethered to devices and constantly communicating, while Boomers may be used to signing off at 5 p.m.

That's why when employees of any age are hired, they should learn their workplace's style, he noted: Is texting the boss or a client appropriate? If you send email on the weekends, can you expect a response or is it acceptable to respond on Monday morning?

Think about the individual. Once you have the workplace culture figured out, take the time to learn how each person works the best and most effectively, regardless of his or her age. The new Gen Z hire may not like group chats or that the person with a bit of gray hair may not be a fan of lengthy in-person meetings. Pollak suggested simply asking colleagues: "What is the best way to communicate with you?"

Once you learn this, "tailor your communication to the person, more than the generation," said Sean Cain, vice president of career development at Fox Networks Group, who coaches about 5,000 U.S. employees and is based in Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, make your style clear to others. Do you prefer planned meetings, or can someone huddle with you for a quick chat? Do you find group texts effective or annoying? "You will be more successful if you explicitly tell people the best way to communicate with you," Pollak said.

Present the same information in various ways. Of course, there will be times when you have to distribute information to a group of varying ages and styles. If you need to send a lengthy, complicated, or especially important message, remember that variety is an asset. Instead of sending out just an email, consider extending its reach by coordinating it with a conference call, intranet copy, a text, or a video, "which is one of the few [media] that cuts across generations," Dorsey said.

Also, remember that your audience could receive your message on laptops, tablets, or smartphones, so make sure it is mobile friendly. On smaller phones, long subject lines may get broken up, while blocks of text can fill the screen and be harder to read.

Presenting a message in various media increases the chances that your message will be received. "You actually just want to take the same piece of content and make it easier to digest," Dorsey said. "You're just trying to give people different pathways to get the same information."

Be authentic. Remember that the basic rules of communication still apply in a digital age. Listen more, and think before you speak.

"Respect the rules of genuine relationships that are time-tested and always reliable," said Cain. "Utilize empathy, demonstrate appreciation, respect their time and other commitments, and identify easy connectors, such as shared interests." 

Don't try to sound like you're older or younger than you are. "If you are a very formal Baby Boomer, don't talk about being 'on fleek,'" which is another word for perfect, said Pollak. "It's just weird." If you are 22 and you're very informal, don't use phrases like 'It has come to my attention,'" she added.

Don't discriminate. Resist the urge to judge or shame a demographic based on how they're perceived to communicate, Pollak said. Don't joke that Boomers can't handle technology and don't rush to Generation Zers to fix the office technology or your phone.

"Sometimes we do it as a joke. We don't allow that with other forms of discrimination, so why do we let that be a joke when it comes to different age groups?" Pollak said. "That immediately harms communication."

Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in Atlanta. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, email senior editor Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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