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There is a Cure for the “It’s Not Fair!” Blues

Posted by Elaine Varelas  August 2, 2010 08:00 AM

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By Elaine Varelas

Here we are in the middle of summer and we’re surrounded by the sounds of the season: waves crashing, fans whirring, the chiming of ice cream trucks, and the battle cries of children everywhere screaming, “It’s not fair!” You may hear this as the kids ardently plead with their parents for that sleepover, a few more minutes in the pool, or the last cupcake.

While you may think that this statement is restricted to childhood, human resource professionals are hearing it more often in the office, as well. As HR managers adjust to the changing demographics of the workplace, it is becoming increasingly challenging to manage and motivate (and please) everyone. For the first time in history, we have four generations of people in the workforce. It stands to reason then that a “one size fits all” approach to motivating employees will most likely fall flat. Yet, HR managers may not be able to accommodate the perhaps hundreds of requests or suggestions from employees. It may seem overwhelming to HR managers to develop a retention and benefits program that will satisfy everyone—while eliminating jealousy and rivalry (“Why do they get more vacation time than we do?”).

The good news is that while there may not be a cure for the summertime blues, HR managers can help to remedy the “It’s not fair!” blues. The first step is for HR managers to cast aside one of the biggest management fallacies: “In order to be fair, you must treat everyone the same.” This is simply not true—and most employees would agree. In fact, different generations of people are going to be motivated by very different things. While it may be one employee’s dream to get paid time-off from work to build houses for a favorite charity, it may seem like cruel and unusual punishment to another. To be fair, HR managers should treat everyone equitably—not the same.

Foster Teamwork
Employees will be better able to understand each other’s motivations by getting to know one another and working as a team. Employee development should be centered around leadership and teamwork to develop trust and respect between generations. This will also help eliminate same-generation cliques or camps. Cross-generational teams can foster a positive learning environment because each generation has so much to share. This can also work on a one-on-one basis through mentor programs. Teaming a younger person up with a veteran employee can be mutually beneficial. The seasoned employee can share expertise about how to work with clients, while the younger employee can give a tutorial on how to master a smart phone.

Inquire Within
Don’t assume that just because people are of a certain age, they will all be motivated by the same things. Of course, there are some similarities in what people want from their jobs when they are at certain stages of their lives. For instance, people in their 30s and 40s often request professional development and training programs, or a flexible schedule to accommodate their family lives. Baby boomers may want a sabbatical or time to travel. Young workers may want insurance for their pets. The best way to determine what employees want is to ask! You can conduct a formal survey or have managers talk to employees individually.

Tailor Your Program
While it may not be possible or financially viable to entertain every individual’s request, you may see trends within groups of people from the same generation. The next step is to examine the needs of the organization. What does the company need from employees? What is the trade-off in providing a benefit? You may realize that an employee request may match perfectly with the organization’s mission or business goals. For example, a boomer generation employee may want to become a “snow bird,” working nine months out of the year in New England and three months in Florida. For some businesses, such as retail, this arrangement may work well as they would have an extra employee to work during the busy season down south without having to hire additional staff.

Shout it out
Once you’ve developed your program, let people know all of the details. Clarity and transparency are key. How does it work? How can people choose benefits? What are the options? If HR managers do a good job of communicating about the policies there will be less chance of envy or hard feelings.

Build Support
By working hard to develop a sense of team, camaraderie, and respect across generational lines, HR managers can help employees empathize with one another and care about each other. Jealousy and rivalry can be replaced with a happiness that the organization is listening to its employees, and is working to support people in ways that are meaningful to them. Hopefully, employees can look around at their co-workers and say, “What is important to them is important to me.” HR managers can then hear employees exclaim, “Hey, this IS fair!”

Elaine Varelas is Managing Partner at Keystone Partners, a Boston-based career managment company. She can be reached at

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Featuring human resources advice and columns from The Boston Globe's On Staffing and Hire Authority writers.