The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

October 25, 2013

Watercooler: Boomers vs. boomerangs

By Karla L. Miller
Special to The Washington Post

— Q: I'm a baby boomer supervisor in a government agency. I have a stereotypical millennial staffer whose work is excellent. I'm as flexible as I can be with her schedule under our agency rules, give her challenging assignments, and offer lots of positive feedback. But she wants still more freedom to set her own agenda. The problem is, my rigid baby boomer boss thinks I'm setting a bad precedent with the rest of the staff by "caving in" to her "demands." How can I encourage my boss to accept the millennial work style before I lose this valued employee?

A: By "stereotypical millennial," I assume you mean that "Millie" thrives on positive reinforcement, expects flexibility and opportunity, is not intimidated by hierarchy, and won't linger in an unsatisfactory situation. Or, in your boss's view, she's a needy, entitled upstart with no work ethic, respect for authority or sense of loyalty.

As a member of the sandwich generation (a cheesy ham, and wry), this Gen Xer will try to speak to both Boomers and Boomerangs without sounding like a bitter middle child.

Smart workplaces adapt to attract and retain the best workers. Requests that initially seem over-the-top — flex time, job sharing, telecommuting — often end up becoming common perks. It's great that you're willing to indulge Millie's needs, — happy workers are hard workers — provided you're willing to give her co-workers the same consideration.

And Millie would be wise to realize that adaptability goes both ways. Every job has its "I went to college for this?" scut work; every new worker faces a learning curve that can be mastered only with time, patience and a willingness to accept honest critiques.

So tell your staff: "I'm giving you as much leeway as I can, but this agency isn't going to change overnight. Before we push for more changes, I need you to help me show management that productivity can remain high, even improve, under the concessions you have so far."

To your boss: "As long as the work is being done correctly and on time, I'd like to grant my workers appropriate flexibility to help them perform their best. If you notice performance slipping, please let me know."

Of course, your boss has the final say. But you might point out that if Millie were to leave, her replacement would come from a pool of people increasingly like her. And when the job-market pendulum swings back in young workers' favor, they aren't likely to stick with an agency that hasn't kept up with the times. For that matter, neither will older workers who want what the kids are having.

Karla L. Miller writes an advice column on navigating the modern workplace. Each week she will answer one or two questions from readers. Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office. You can find her on Twitter, @KarlaAtWork.