One of the hottest topics out there right now is the subject of generational differences in the workplace.
As discussed in my recent post entitled, “Spanning the Decades: Career Advice for Every Age and Every Stage,” four generations – Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Gen X, and Millennials/GenY – currently work together…leading to a variety of commonly-recognized workplace issues and complications.
One of the most common and challenging examples of this is when these different generations cross paths in the job interviewing process. So I am often asked by my clients and my students for tips on how to navigate this treacherous terrain.
But rather than taking on this daunting challenge all by myself, I decided to turn to one of the most prominent experts in the field of generational differences in the workplace: my friend, Brad Szollose, the author of “Liquid Leadership: From Woodstock to Wikipedia – Multigenerational Management Ideas That Are Changing the Way We Run Things.”
This post will be the first in a series of co-authored articles on this topic of interviewing across generational lines.
One note to keep in mind before we start: We never want to stereotype people based on their age or generational affiliation (as there are always exceptions to every rule). But, from personal experience and much recent industry research, there are certain trends and patterns that we find out there — and, thus, advice we can offer – that might help you to more successfully bridge the generational divide. And, as this is just two Baby Boomers talking, if you have any additional thoughts on the subject, we’d love to hear insights from ALL generations, so please feel free to dive into the discussion by contributing to the comments section below. With that said, here we go…
Five Things Millennials Need to Know When Being Interviewed by a Baby Boomer
#1: Not all Boomers are NOOBS
In video game lingo, those who have played for years are considered Elite or ‘Lites. Those who are new and, therefore, tend to make a lot of mistakes are called Newbies or NOOBS. The mistake many Millennials make is assuming that all Boomers are not as tech-savvy as they are, often resulting in the appearance of being arrogant or condescending towards the more experienced interviewer.
So it’s best to err on the side of caution and assume that the Boomer knows as much as you do. And, if it turns out that they don’t, then take that opportunity to explain things and show what you know and what you can do. But do so respectfully. There’s a fine line between being smart and being a smart-ass — and being a smart-ass won’t get you the job. Remember, some pretty cool Boomers invented most of the digital devices you are currently using.
#2: If you want a Boomer to understand something, show them the benefits
Chris, was a young software salesman in his late 20s who was getting nowhere with a Baby Boomer prospect. After two years of knocking on this guy’s door, Chris finally called me out of desperation. My advice to him was this: “You can’t just tell him why this new software is so valuable; you need to show him.” Two hours later, Chris had in his hand a $10,000 deposit check and a signed two-year contract.
Boomers tend not to respond to just a discussion – especially when it comes to new technologies. We’ve seen so many tech fads come and go that we tend not to be the early adopters that Millennials often are. After having to decide between Beta and VHS, followed by throwing out all our 8-Track tapes and cassettes, we’ve learned that lesson the hard way, having been burned too many times. We’re the generation that was taught to wait until a technology has been proven and established before we commit to it. And we may not speak the latest language (“Wait, explain to me what a ‘hashtag’ is again…”). In order to gain our buy-in, we need to understand how a new technology works, why it’s better than what we have now, and how we can either make money, save money, or gain a competitive advantage from it.
Similarly, when it comes to interviewing with a Boomer, you need to not just tell us how great you are, but show us. Keep in mind that no matter what your GPA was or what university you went to, you do not have the life or professional experience that the Boomer has gained from his years of attending the “School of Hard Knocks.” So you will need to find a way to demonstrate your strengths and the value that you bring to the table.
#3: Boomers respect hierarchy and the time it took to get there
Back in the day, here’s what was expected of a Boomer on the first day of his or her new job: Show up on time, sit down, shut up, listen to your boss, and do your work. The formula for our career trajectory was: Age + Time + Experience + Knowledge Hoarding = Status + Salary. A normal career path was starting in the mailroom and aspiring, over the course of 30 long years, to a Corner Office…followed by a gold watch at your retirement party.
Our boss was often (usually) mean, and didn’t care about our input…and he (bosses were typically a “he”) certainly didn’t care about our feelings. One of Todd’s first of many horrible bosses actually responded to one of his productive suggestions with (quote), “I don’t pay you to think; I pay you to work. So just get back to your desk.” No one was seeking our advice when we were 25. And we wouldn’t ever dare speak to an executive without being spoken to first. And whether you were or not, it was important to look busy; no slacking off…even as we stared at the wall clock counting the minutes til five o’clock rolled around.
Fast forward 35 years later and we have a generation raised by parents who treated them like friends and asked for their opinions. Hierarchies became flattened, and informality ruled, as parents became mentors and teachers were being addressed by their first names. Encouraged to speak up, speak out, and collaborate, feelings mattered, there was no one right way to approach a problem, and you were told you could be anything you wanted to be when you grew up.
So, knowing that Boomers value hierarchy, formality, and respect, when being interviewed by one you may want to keep all this in mind. Despite what you were taught growing up, this person who has worked 25 years to get to where they are is not your peer. Not yet, anyway. Their status, title, and experience from paying their dues warrants respect. Give it to them. And they’ll be more likely to give it to you in return.
#4: To a Boomer, experience trumps your college degree
Similarly, not only did it take your Baby Boomer interviewer 20+ years to work his or her way up the corporate ladder, but they’ve had to navigate two decades of office politics and economic roller coasters…not to mention manual typewriters, carbon paper, fax machines, the transition from DOS to Windows, and are lucky to still have any hearing left after years of listening to that screeching sound made by AOL dial-up trying to connect via a 56K modem.
Boomers have been in the workforce long before having a college degree was mandatory for employment. Back then, being eager and willing to learn (and maybe having an uncle in the business) was all you needed to get your foot in the door. But in today’s work environment, a bachelors’ and, in some cases, even a masters’ degree is the price of admission just to be considered for an interview.
So when you are fresh out of college, with a bachelors or MBA, with little-to-no real-world work experience no matter how tech-savvy you are, it’s valuable to let the interviewer know that you respect the process, that you are willing to learn and pay your dues, and that no job is beneath you. At this point in your career, look at every experience – including internships, temp work, project work, or entry level positions – as a growth opportunity. That’s how the Boomer interviewer probably started out, so they will respect you for being humble and open to the idea of starting at the bottom and working your way up.
#5: Boomers are not slow, they are diligent
Millennials were raised to leap in, learn as you go, fail fast, and collaborate. Mistakes are just a natural part of the process: no big deal, and no judgments. This “ship now, and fix it later” mentality is consistent with their growing up playing video games where new software versions and getting knocked back to the finish line are just part of the experience of growing up in a digital world.
Boomers, on the other hand, grew up in an analog world where childhood board games were linear, rules were rules, and one mistake or violating the chain of command at work could get you fired. So they value process, hierarchy, respect, and doing things in a linear, methodical fashion with a “do it right the first time” mentality.
To a Millennial, Boomers may appear to be slow and ruled by process and bureaucracy, but it is more about efficiency and effectiveness: the values we were brought up on. We have little tolerance for careless mistakes and wasting time doing things over again. “Do you want it done right, or do you want it done right now?” is not an either-or question you want to ask of a Baby Boomer: we want and require both. Handing in work on time, but filled with grammatical errors, typos, programming bugs, or inaccuracies is as bad as not handing in your work at all.
Boomers care about appearance (including how you dress) because we feel it reflects your work ethic, values, and professionalism. And attention to detail reflects competence and an “I care” attitude. So if you want to be taken seriously as a candidate, don’t send a Boomer a resume filled with typos or a cover letter filled with grammatical mistakes. Even though the business world is spinning faster than ever, Baby Boomers still believe that slow and steady wins the race. You may not agree, but in this scenario wherein they are the ones holding the keys to your possible dream job, it’s to your benefit to learn and play by their rules.
So those are five of our top tips for Millennials interviewing with Boomers. Again, these are broad generalities, but to us they are commonalities based on our experience with current realities. Do you agree or disagree with them? We’d love to hear from you!
Pre-conceptions and biases about other generations are not a one-way street. In Part 2 of our series, we’ll explore “5 Common Myths Boomers Need to Get Rid of When Interviewing Millennials.”
After that, we’ll turn the tables to talk about the increasingly common scenario of: Millennials and Gen X interviewing Baby Boomers…and what all parties need to know. Boomers…this will be YOUR wake-up call. Stay tuned.
Much thanks to Brad for his tremendous contributions to this series on job interviewing across the generations!
For more, check out his excellent blog and website.
Brad Szollose is a global business adviser, former C-Level Executive of a public company, Web pioneer, Generation Y Millennial expert and keynote speaker who helps smart companies understand how much technology has transformed corporate culture and behavior…especially the behavior of Generation Y Millennials, and how that impacts management, interaction and expectations in today’s Information Age. Brad is the award-winning author of “Liquid Leadership.”