Managing today’s multigenerational workforce
From left: Steve Langley, senior vice president of member services/chief retail officer; Angelito “JoJo” Cristobal Jr., retail sales manager; and Jennifer Jones, business analyst, are successful in a multigenerational work environment at Schools Financial CU in Sacramento, Calif. (Photo: Kent Lacin,

Managing today’s multigenerational workforce

CU leaders modify their management approach and expectations.

April 20, 2017

The pressure was on for Cindy Swigert.

It was 2010, and Swigert’s new employer, a growing Midwestern credit union, was preparing for a full core system conversion. Compounding the situation, half of the credit union’s employees had recently transitioned to a new system in the wake of a major merger and would have to go through the process all over again.

“Add to that the dynamics of the different generations [of staff] and it became a big scary monster,” recalls Swigert, now vice president of human resources at $331 million asset Day Air Credit Union in Kettering, Ohio.

Swigert and her colleagues tackled this challenge by forming multigenerational, multifunctional project teams. Their success provides a primer on how credit unions can leverage generational strengths to better serve members, and retain motivated employees.

A rapidly changing workforce

Today, employers face a landmark tipping point.

The millennial generation, comprised of roughly 76 million people born between 1981 and 1997, recently passed the baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, as the largest segment of the U.S. population, according to the Pew Research Center.

Just as significant, as boomers ease into retirement, millennials are entering the most stable and productive stage of their careers. In fact, millennials are expected to make up 75% of the U.S. workforce by 2025.

“This millennial workforce really wants to be engaged, and they want to feel like they’re making a difference,” says Steve Langley, senior vice president of member services/chief retail officer at $1.8 billion asset Schools Financial Credit Union in Sacramento, Calif.

But this desire to contribute sometimes leads to conflict with other generations in the workforce, particularly members of Generation X.

The nation’s 66 million Gen Xers, those born between 1965 and 1980, are sandwiched between the higher-profile boomers and millennials. Yet members of this generation are now moving into senior leadership positions, and in many cases will continue working for the next 20 years.

Based on immigration and mortality trends, the U.S. population of Gen X is projected to surpass that of boomers by 2028. The volatile dynamic between a Gen X workforce at the height of its powers and a massive and ascendant millennial workforce is causing tension at many organizations.

“Gen X needs to be a bigger part of the conversation,” says Jason Dorsey, chief strategy officer at The Center for Generational Kinetics and an expert on millennials. “They’re the ones moving into the senior leadership roles. Right now, the most conflict we’re seeing is millennial to Gen X because both generations are waiting to move up.”

“Gen Xers have put in their time over the past 15 or 20 years and they’re now in leadership positions,” says Josh Allison, senior consultant with FI Strategies. “At the same time you have the millennials, who have a fundamentally different view of the world. Rather than wanting a large paycheck or a prestigious career, they want purpose in the workplace.”

The typical member of Gen X doesn’t have the same motivations. “Millennials and the Gen Xers they’re reporting to are having conversations about development, and they’re speaking a different language,” Allison says. “As a result of that divide, there’s disengagement.”

Allison says this disconnect costs U.S. businesses between $450 billion and $550 billion each year in lost productivity. Employers struggle to foster loyalty in millennials, who tend to leave an employer if they don’t feel challenged or valued.

Even if they stick around, young workers will “check out” quickly if they believe they’re not being heard.

“I think the biggest challenge with millennials is they sometimes get very frustrated because they want to do more,” says Peter Stein, senior vice president of human resources at $1.7 billion asset Educators Credit Union in Mount Pleasant, Wis. “I’ve noticed that they’re not afraid of hard work. They don’t mind working overtime. But they want a quality of work. They don’t want to come in and just sit at a computer all day. They really want to be challenged.”

Lukewarm employee engagement can quickly lead to external disengagement—the death knell for service- focused cooperatives such as credit unions that count on member loyalty and commitment.

Leveraging strengths, valuing differences

Faced with these challenges, some credit union leaders are taking innovative, flexible approaches toward managing today’s multigenerational workforce.

Confronted with the challenge of guiding a multigenerational project team from three merged cooperatives through a complex core system conversion, Swigert knew her former employer would need to try some new, collaborative techniques to ensure success.

Her first step was to encourage those team members who had already gone through a conversion to share their frustrations and challenges.

“We had some of them talk about their journey and how they felt, so it validated how other people were feeling,” Swigert says. “They shared that they felt threatened and intimidated.”

Swigert also established a buddy system to support those who struggled with new technology.

“A lot of times we would pair a Gen X or millennial with a boomer to help them through,” Swigert says.

Swigert also created project committees that were both intergenerational and functionally diverse. In one meeting, a team member noticed that the representative from the accounting department was absent. The group decided to halt the meeting until the person could be brought in.

Tellingly, the accounting representative had previously worked at one of the two merged credit unions, while the other team members were from the other legacy organization.

“I knew then that they were starting to see the value different people bring to a project,” Swigert says.

Meeting millennials halfway

Another challenge credit unions face is balancing members’ expectations of professionalism with the desire of today’s young workforce for greater flexibility and a casual work environment. For some managers, it comes down to instilling different standards for different job functions.

“We have a business to run and we’re not a cool, hip technology company where people can ride their skateboards around the branches, and where teams hang out with their dogs all day,” says Schools Financial’s Langley. “We’re a professional organization that has to open the doors at 9 a.m. and close the doors at 6 p.m., and we need our employees there to make sure that happens.”

At Schools Financial, branch employees are expected to adhere to a professional dress code. But the standards are more lenient for back-office roles such as business analysts or marketing staff, Langley says. As a result, back-office staff are allowed to wear jeans a few days a week.

While creating a dress code where all generations feel comfortable is important, for Langley it comes down to focusing on the end goal and establishing an environment where employees of all ages feel comfortable and supported.

“It’s more about trying to understand what their needs, wants, desires, and career aspirations are within the framework of the organization,” says Langley, who self-identifies as a baby boomer.

He points to two of his younger colleagues as exemplars of the successful millennial mindset.

“We have a group of incredibly talented business analysts in our organization. Nobody’s older than 30 years of age and they want to be challenged,” Langley says. “I’m always challenging my managers to keep their team members engaged and focused. These are young folks, but they have such a positive impact on the organization.”

Those young professionals at Schools Financial agree with Langley’s assessment.

“If we have the right people in place, I don’t have to micromanage anybody,” says Angelito “JoJo” Cristobal Jr., retail sales manager. “I really try to get to know the people I’m working with. Not just in their current role, but what do they want to do? What did they do before coming here? I try to be intentional about recognizing areas of strength.”

When Cristobal interviewed Jennifer Jones for a business analyst role, he noted she had experience as a Microsoft Excel tutor. Today, he refers other teammates to Jones when they need help with the program.

Cristobal says he does that intentionally, so his employees recognize he pays attention to the skills they have and that “I value them not just for the work they do here, but as people,” Cristobal says. “I want to encourage them. I want them to grow. I want them to feel good about what they do.”

Jones values hands-on, collaborative supervision that stems from a place of mutual respect.

“It makes a difference when a supervisor doesn’t just care about getting the job done, but cares that you’re happy as an employee, that you’re growing, that you’re learning things, and that you’re challenged,” Jones says.

“That’s my approach with everybody regardless of age, role, or position,” adds Cristobal. “It really is about trying to figure out what makes someone tick as an individual, without any assumptions based on generation.”