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HR's responsibility as employees age

By Elaine Varelas, 9/5/2006

"Will you still need me when I'm 64?"

When Paul McCartney wrote this tune with the Beatles, he was questioning whether his girlfriend would still love and care for him as he got older. But this sentiment could just as easily apply to an employer. Workers often worry that as they age they will become obsolete and their organization just won't need them anymore.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, as the war for talent heats up, companies are competing more aggressively for fewer workers-and fighting hard to keep those they already have.

It is more cost-effective to keep good people, regardless of their age. Especially important are the aging employees-those who may have been with the organization for ten, twenty, or thirty years. These workers are a critical source of knowledge and intellectual capital. They have a knowledge base that others in the company simply do not. They know the organization's history, have developed important outside relationships, and carry a sense of continuity for the company. That "gray hair" brings a maturity in many areas others may lack.

As Baby Boomers age and the supply of talent becomes scarce, your company risks suffering from "brain drain" if you encourage, or don't discourage, mature workers to walk out the door. But first HR managers and company leaders must decide who among this key group you want to keep. Who makes up your workforce? What impact will aging have? Who are your gems? Who is grooming your next generation of leaders?

What are the most effective strategies for retaining these employees? Look at ways you would retain any staff member. You must look at the individual and figure out what is important to him or her. Just because they fall into a certain age bracket doesn't mean they are carbon copies of each other.

One thing that every employee wants is to feel valued. Don't assume your people know how important they are to the organization. Tell them, and more importantly, show them. Older workers may feel undervalued, especially if they see how aggressive the organization is when wooing new talent. When the energy of the company goes into recruitment, longevity may be undervalued, and older workers may feel they are being pushed aside. If the company doesn't demonstrate that these employees are important, their productivity could suffer and they will eventually leave.

Making employees feel valued is the first step. HR managers then need to help older workers answer these questions: What is my role in the organization, and what will it be for the duration of my time here? What is important to me?

While it is traditional for older workers to cut back on their schedules, this could take shape in a variety of ways. Some may simply want to work fewer days or hours per day. Others may want to spend work time pursuing other endeavors, such as a sabbatical, where the employee takes time off to travel or teach. Employees may feel a desire to volunteer their time at a local school, charity, or non-profit. "Snowbirds" who live in a warm climate during the winter may also want to continue working by telecommuting during the colder months. They may also be able to work in many offices geographically and support different business lines or younger managers as they develop their skills.

This may also be a time for a new role in the organization. Many older workers aren't interested in climbing the corporate ladder, but they still need to be challenged. A new position may be just the thing to keep them motivated at work.

Another concern for HR managers is how to devise a way for mature workers to share their expertise and knowledge. This may mean developing a mentor program to ensure the success of new recruits, or people in new roles. These programs are all about relationships - senior staff to junior, and both to the organization.

These programs must be customized to meet the specific needs of each employee: one size doesn't fit all. This is an ongoing process-and the organization and the HR manager must be committed to continuously revising and improving that process. It takes groundwork, analysis, and employees who are willing to test the program.

While these programs are a great way to retain older workers, they are also an impressive recruitment tool for new hires. Younger recruits will be attracted to an organization that values employees and their development and works to retain key talent. While we are focusing on employees reaching retirement age, this process can work for those at all ages and stages in their careers. HR managers may want to look at integrating cross-generational workforce development into a more formal program for employees in all age groups. Whether an employee is 24 or 64, these initiatives will help employees stay more motivated, productive, and valuable, and help keep the organization at its most competitive.

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