Originally posted at the California Special Districts Association.

The Placer County Water Agency (PCWA), like many special districts, has seen its workforce grow increasingly generationally diverse over the years. The district has strived to make its environment one that encourages a culture of belonging, of teamwork and of growth. How has it been able to foster a positive working environment for its employees – regardless of their differences? And what exactly are the challenges that an organization faces when it has three different generations in one workplace?

California Special District asked PCWA to tell us about their experience so far and how they approach the matter of generational diversity in the workplace.

What does the PCWA workforce look like, generationally speaking?

PCWA’s workforce is comprised primarily of Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, who are nearly evenly split, to collectively comprise 84 percent of our workforce. The remaining 16 percent of the workforce is comprised of Millennials. So, we currently have three generations in our workforce. Given the demographics of the labor market, the number of Millennials is expected to grow significantly over the next several years as Baby Boomers retire from the agency and vacant positions are filled.

What are some of the challenges PCWA has faced with having multiple generations in the workplace? 

The underlying basis for generational differences lies in the historical and cultural events that people are exposed to during their formative years. These events help shape their subsequent values, beliefs and perspectives on life. Values, beliefs and perspectives manifest themselves as workplace behaviors and are labeled generational differences. With three generations at PCWA, we do see different approaches, styles and preferences as to how work is completed and how people interact with one another.

For example, the Millennials tend to ask a lot of “why” questions. While the Baby Boomers and the Gen Xers may be more likely to accept an organizational decision or a work assignment at face value, Millennials often have a desire to understand the underlying rational for the decision or assignment. Millennials are not timid about asking for a complete explanation.

Probably the biggest difference between the Millennials and the other generational groups is their comfort-level with technology. The Millennials grew up with technology and are very technologically savvy. They expect all data to be available in a digital format and expect the organization to rely on technology to create greater efficiencies. Baby Boomers and, to a certain extent Gen Xers, may not be as eager to embrace the use of technology. They may have to be sold on the benefits of a technology solution before supporting it. The Millennials, on the other hand, are often advocating for greater use of technology.

Another difference we see across the range of generations is the level of organizational commitment. The Millennials tend to view themselves as “free agents.”  If there are aspects of the job or the organization that are not completely fulfilling their needs, they are more likely to leave the organization than their Baby Boomer or Gen Xer counterparts. Baby Boomers and Gen Xers often remain with the organization, even if they are not completely satisfied. This could be because they have more invested in the organization (i.e., longer tenure) or perhaps they perceive they have limited options in the external labor market.

Even with the differences that are apparent across the various generations at PCWA, our employees do seem to share a core set of values with regards to the workplace environment. These common values include the desire for rewards and recognition commensurate with performance, respect and collaboration in employee interactions, and a sense of loyalty (perhaps individually defined) to the employment relationship.

How, specifically, have you addressed those challenges?

PCWA has addressed generational challenges through proper talent management. We hire not just for skill-set but, more importantly, for compatibility with the culture of the organization. Organizational culture is defined as shared assumptions, norms and values. When you understand your organizational culture, and hire employees who are compatible with that culture, generational differences become less of a challenge.

The key is to hire for organizational fit and then embrace any generational differences that may exist. Often when employees are unsuccessful in an organization it is not because of generational differences but, rather, it is due to their incompatibility with the workplace culture. It is important to recognize that each generation may bring different yet highly valuable attributes to the organization. Diversity in a workforce is good. Diversity of perspectives, opinions and approaches makes an organization more effective, more satisfying to current employees and also more appealing to prospective employees.

At PCWA, we have a very strong, positive organizational culture. It’s a culture that recognizes and values all employees, regardless of their generational label, and respects inclusiveness as reflected in decision-making processes, the stewardship of resources, and the establishment of partnerships and alliances.

We are extremely fortunate to have a board of directors that is committed to sustaining this workplace culture through purposeful hiring, employee retention, staff development and succession planning.

Are there innovative ways PCWA has worked to bridge the generational differences in the workplace?

For more than 20 years, PCWA has provided all new hires with Organizational Effectiveness Training (OET) as part of the formalized onboarding and socialization process. This three-day program is designed to create an organizational culture of collaboration. The training emphasizes an interest-based, non-adversarial approach to communication and problem-solving. It provides employees with principles and concepts that allow them to focus on issues rather than personalities. It further provides employees with the skills to engage in decision-making based on objective reason rather than on power or coercion. Most importantly, the training accentuates the “human element” in the workplace and the value of building relationships and appreciating differences.

In addition to the OET training, which is intended to properly integrate new employees into the culture of PCWA, we also invest heavily in job-related training and development for our employees. Our goal is to ensure that our employees have the knowledge and skills to be completely comfortable and successful in their role at the agency. We emphasize on-going education and development so that employees have the opportunity to grow with the agency and move up into higher level positions. Our preference is to promote from within the organization. This philosophy tends to foster greater organizational commitment, preserve institutional knowledge and expertise, and create stability and tranquility in the organization.

Through our hiring process, enculturation program and commitment to employee development, our goal is to transcend generational differences. In essence, generational differences become secondary to our workplace culture. We are creating an environment in which generational differences are compatible with and enhance the culture of the organization.

What can special districts do to make their offices a positive work environment for each generation?

There are three primary elements to establishing a work environment that is positive for each generation.

First, special districts need to understand their unique organizational culture and then recruit and hire employees who can excel within that culture. Every organization is different. The values, attitudes, norms and behaviors that are desirable in one organization may not be a good fit at another organization. Many organizations do not take the time to actually identify and define their culture. It is important to recognize the traits that would make someone successful in the organization and then recruit and hire for those traits.

Secondly, it is important to move beyond labels (e.g., Baby Boomers, Gen Xers) and not become preoccupied with the stereotypes of the various generations. Special districts should demonstrate an appreciation for diversity of perspective and work style. The emphasis should be placed on creating a workplace environment of understanding, respect and trust where differences are valued and used to make the organization stronger and more effective. The overarching goal is to create an environment in which each individual is contributing to the betterment of the organization.

Finally, special districts should invest in their employees by providing training and developmental opportunities. This is important for all generational groups but is especially important with Millennials. According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, Millennials are one of the fastest growing segments of the labor force. In 2015, Millennials are projected to surpass the Baby Boomer generation as the largest living generation. Millennials crave career development. They expect the organization to provide them with training and development opportunities that are relevant to their jobs. When these opportunities are lacking, turnover is the likely outcome.

If special districts hire for organizational fit, embrace diversity of perspective and style, and make an educational investment in their employees, what should emerge is a motivated, engaged, committed, and long-tenured workforce.