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Recognize Generational Differences to Strengthen Retention Efforts

Analysis  |  By Lena J. Weiner  
   May 16, 2016

Different generations of workers have different needs. Let's stop trying to pretend otherwise.

College towns are transient places, and Charlottesville, home to the University of Virginia Health System, is no different.

Every year, "we have a large contingent of students and residents who decide they've done their time here," says Mark Dunn, a talent strategy officer at the health system. "Then, it's time to go."

Replacing healthcare professionals can cost more than 20% of that worker's annual salary, a number that doesn't include the inevitable slow down before the professional leaves, revenue decline during vacancy, or money lost as the new hire ramps up.

No age group is immune to wanderlust, but Dunn and his team have witnessed more young workers coming and going than any other group. Tired of his retention efforts getting trampled, Dunn decided that something had to be done.

One Strategy Does Not Fit All

Traditionally, recruitment, retention, and engagement have been one-size-fits-all.

It's been assumed that if something appeals to a middle-aged worker, it will delight a recent graduate equally. That strategy may have worked in the past, but differences among age groups must be taken into consideration says St. Louis-based healthcare recruitment consultant Kathy Jordan.

"For the first time in human history, we have four—soon to be five—generations working side-by-side," she says. Each generation was shaped by different forces and events, and is in different places in their careers.

"Millennials are social," says Dunn, referring to the demographic born between 1977 and 1996 and the one with the greatest turnover at UVHS.

Traditionalists (born 1925 – 1945), are very comfortable with formal work environments, value their privacy (don't expect them to add coworkers on Facebook—if they even have an account), and tend to trust and value experience.

In terms of career goals, many traditionalists crave the opportunity to end their careers on a high note, but might need a reduced schedule to manage it.

Contrast Traditionalists with Millennial workers, who are attracted to organizations where they feel they will be respected as a contributing team member from day one.

A member of Generation X (born 1965 to 1976), Dunn wondered whether providing a stronger social fabric for younger workers [Millennials] would help them stay put.

Most of this generation's cohorts are looking for jobs that will allow them to gain experience while paying the bills—but they don't want to "sell out" or sacrifice too much time with people or activities that matter to them to do it.

Both of these groups have something to offer an organization; each requires different engagement and retention strategies.

Different Demographics, Different Values

Almost half (48%) of healthcare workers belong to the Baby Boom demographic (born 1946 to 1964).

Regina Levison, vice president of client development at Jordan Search Consultants says "These are children of parents who respected authority. They took direction [from managers], and they stayed in companies long-term."

"Working in healthcare offers stability," she says, "but also fulfills the need [of Boomers] to give back and work in a profession that allows [them] to make the world a better place."

Convention doesn't appeal to Gen Xers or Millennials, who generally prefer an informal management style and more casual work environment. Boomers and Traditionalists may have worked 80-hour weeks at various points of their careers, but today's managers can't expect that, says Levison.

"Gen Xers were latchkey kids." Having spent their childhoods in empty houses without adult supervision, they balk at sacrificing family time, Levison says. They've seen parents get downsized and major institutions go under.

Work is important to Generation X and Millennials, but these generations believe family, friends, and personal values are enduring, while employers are more likely to come and go.

Generational Approaches to Retention

To engage members of older generations, remember that they will respond well to being told how greatly their experience is valued, suggest Jordan and Levison.

Formality also matters with these workers. Calling them "Dr. Smith" instead of "John" could be make or break. Also, many Traditionalists and Boomers relish the opportunity to impart the wisdom they've collected over the decades to a new generation, and seek out mentoring roles.

Engaging and retaining Generation X and Millennials requires a different strategy, most notably, ensuring they feel not only valued, but respected.

Millennials especially "don't look at managers as bosses, but as strategy guides that will [help] them through their jobs," says Jordan, who warns that the informal and egalitarian manner of younger workers might seem less respectful, especially to older managers.

"We're all in this together, and we all have something to give," sums up the younger perspective, she says.

It's also important to be mindful of different needs when designing benefits. Older workers may be enticed by part-time opportunities; younger workers with heavy debts might be enticed by retention bonuses, assistance with housing loans, or student loan relief.

Finding Their Place

Helping young workers find friends is key to retaining them, says Mark Dunn. He and his team in Charlottesville have been working to connect younger workers with the community.

Dunn asked his academic colleagues for best practices used to assimilate graduate students and faculty. He was advised to refer young workers to athletic groups, arts clubs, churches, and other community organizations.

For older Millennials and Gen X workers, Dunn suggests focusing on helping the entire family integrate into the community.

Helping the worker to find the right schools and activities for their children can go a long way toward creating permanency, as can events where spouses of healthcare workers can get to know each other and establish their own bonds.

"When you help workers get embedded into the community, it's not easy for them to leave," Dunn says.

Had Dunn been trying to retain Traditionalists or Boomers, his methods would undoubtedly have been different.

Accepting that different strategies will retain workers at different life stages is key, says Jordan. "Each generation has different needs—and that's true from both a professional and a personal fulfillment perspective."

Lena J. Weiner is an associate editor at HealthLeaders Media.

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