Generational diversity: How to manage a multi-generational workforce

On 20 November 2019, Obelisk Support joined the first UK edition of Women, Influence & Power in Law UK (WIPL UK), a conference gathering senior female in-house lawyers and private practice lawyers to discuss leadership and legal issues. A topic the event came back to more than once was the challenge of managing multiple generations in a legal team. Lawyers are working longer and as a result, legal teams and corporate teams in general are a more diverse group which creates a relatively new issue – generational diversity.

Generations & Generational Stereotypes

To understand generations in your legal team, it’s important to define them:

  • Baby boomers, also known as Boomers, are the generation that were born mostly following World War II, typically born from 1946 to 1964.
  • Generation X, commonly abbreviated to Gen X, is the generation born from the early-to-mid 1960s to the early 1980s.
  • Millennials, also known as Generation Y, are the cohort of people born from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s to early 2000s.
  • Generation Z, or simply Gen Z, is the cohort of people born after the Millennials. Sometimes known as digital natives as they do not know a world without the internet.

Generational stereotypes could be harmless if they did not get in the way of work.

  • Boomers are perceived as being out of touch and disinterested in learning new skills,
  • Gen X are perceived as cynical loners at work that make poor team members, and
  • Millennials are perceived as snowflakes.

Each of these stereotypes, whether or not based on truth, reveals deep divides that can create real issues when approaching problems. How do you get older people to work with younger ones without being patronising? How do you help younger workers see they have to build up experience before promotion comes? That’s why getting past stereotypes is the only way forward in successful legal teams. In fact, research done at the University of Kentucky and Kutztown University reports that despite the many stereotypes of each generation, there is no real difference when it comes to work ethic or job values.

There are, however, different expectations.

Motivation & Talent Retention

For Mitzi Berberi, Former Vice President and Deputy General Counsel, FOX Networks, age and generation really impacted her team when it came to motivation. Before generational diversity was well understood, the prevailing attitude was that motivating teams was standard. Successful lawyers were rewarded with more (and hopefully, better) work and got promoted to work some more. However that is not the case for newer generations — they don’t perceive rewards the same way as the older generation. They perceive additional workloads as punishments rather than rewards, which begs the question – how do you motivate them?

According to Katherine Thomas, General Counsel, Travelodge, human nature is such that we don’t understand why others are not excited by same things as us. It is important for people to understand what motivates other members of the team. The diversity debate has so far focused largely on gender, orientation and ethnicity but we talk less frequently about age. This was reinforced by Natalie Tan, Global Head Legal Strategic Transactions, Novartis Pharmaceuticals. At large companies, there are women’s groups, LGBTQ+ groups, but there are no places for younger and older generations to get together. Age transcends all the other diversity issues and so far, it’s mostly visible in a negative light.

An employment lawyer in the audience mentioned how sexual orientation and age have become huge issues, resulting in a lot of complaints for age discrimination.

Ageism & Industry

Ageism, or any discrimination based on age, depends a lot on the sector and how the issue of age is viewed as discussed by the panel. While people in the pharmaceutical industry are traditional, viewing age and experience as qualifications to take account before promoting people, the media industry skews towards the very young. In that work sphere, the younger generation perceives older people as outdated.

Unconsciously, Gen X lawyers start taking themselves out of some roles and wonder where they are going next. Pushing ageism to the extreme, some professionals wonder if they need to take botox to remain relevant. In the media where professionals feel older much younger, the only way up is to move to HQ but most are in fact too young for HQ where the customer base expects senior executives.

In the legal industry, age is a double-edged sword. In private practice, it’s about how much PQE lawyers have. Age is really valued by clients, to the point that some clients want “grey hair” in leadership positions for their team. It’s the opposite in-house. For their external resourcing, some clients call legal services providers to look for an experienced lawyer (7 years PQE is the magic number) but not someone who is too experienced. Said a member of the audience, “lawyers go stale and are not employable anymore after 8 years PQE.”

How do you re-position the age debate to make it work for all generations?

Age & Work Sustainability

The legal industry needs to innovate and promote work sustainability, acknowledging that some solicitors don’t want to go up the corporate ladder. After a while when their colleagues don’t get promoted to senior positions, people judge and wonder why they are coasting, why they are not partners yet.

Work life balance is changing. Not everybody wants to be promoted and there’s nothing wrong with that. People should be allowed to have a sustainable career and it should not be perceived as “wrong.”

Moving away from PQE

Does the legal profession need to move away from PQE? All attendees agreed that in the UK, PQE is used as a tag to categorise lawyers but it is a bit lazy. Years of experience is relevant but it’s relevant experience that matters – not PQE. Some generalists with a long work experience could be less well-placed to take on an issue than juniors with less but very niche experience. Valuing relevant experience would shift the focus in legal teams from age to skills.

Generational Diversity Tips for General Counsels

Generational diversity means that general counsels need to tailor to the individual a lot more. A few tips suggested by WIPL panel and audience included the following:

  • Understand what motivates your team.
  • Build internal policies with age in mind. Family policies are not just about children. People have siblings, parents who are getting older.
  • Empower the younger generation and help them capitalise on their enthusiasm, embracing who they are and what their individual skills are. If they are too casual, show them how to behave in the job that they want and in the way they want people to perceive them.
  • Give older team members more autonomy and responsibility, praise them for what they is good at. Something as small as a title change can really help how they perceive a job. Indeed if they older, chances are their friends have senior titles. Instead of “senior counsel,” change their title to senior legal counsel.
  • Be sensitive. The general counsel of a large publisher had a very young team that included a person who only qualified recently as a lawyer and was very sensitive to PQE. In their team, they don’t talk about PQE. The general counsel of a large multinational had a baby boomer on the team and wondered if she should approach the retirement conversation or not. When she did mention it, the person hadn’t thought about it so they mutually agreed to develop her in the same way as other members on the team and ignore the retirement issue.
  • Encourage flexible working. Some people want a better life and don’t want to spend two hours a day in commute. Said Thomas, “I don’t care at what time you do your job if you get it done. Ultimately, you know how long have been working for.” In-house have a responsibility to push flexible working on private practice. She went on, “Tell them you don’t want emails at midnight or during weekends. Tell the lawyers who have kids, ‘It’s fine, send it to me tomorrow morning.’ Nobody needs to send an email at midnight to make a point.”
  • Encourage time management best practices. While private practice has long been a stronghold of face time and long hours, in-house culture has shifted away from this. Some European countries actually look unfavourably on long hours. German lawyers are strict about work hours and managing day hours efficiently. They have a very mathematical view of time management: if you work long hours, either you are not able to work efficiently or you’ve got too much work to do and they need to hire another person. Long hours and being online at midnight mean that you’re not able to do your job in your work hours and it makes lawyers look bad. If a team member works long hours, have a conversation about efficiency and best practices.
  • Minimise meetings. Lawyers don’t need to attend all meetings unless they are necessary. If they’re called to a meeting, suggest that they find out what the agenda is and check whether they are needed there. There are only so many hours in a working day and meetings can reduce productivity if not managed efficiently.

Ultimately, GCs are responsible for managing workload but also people which is the way it should be. Age diverse teams mean that GCs need to learn how to develop personally and professionally, strengthening their ability to flex their management style to each individual’s needs.