Oldies but Goodies

Older workers can be considerable assets &spamp;#8212; if you manage them properly.
Edward TeachJune 15, 2012

If you believe that people are your greatest assets, as the old cliché goes, then you need to read “When the Boomers Go,” by contributing editor Russ Banham. The leading edge of the baby-boom generation reached age 65 last year, and the retirement of that enormous cohort is just beginning. When the boomers depart, their skills, knowledge, and experience will go with them. Banham reports how companies like Lockheed Martin Space Services and Duke Energy are preparing for this by transferring intellectual capital from older workers to younger employees, through mentoring programs and software tools.

Of course, a growing number of people are planning to work beyond age 65, whether in their current jobs or new ones. As Banham found, older workers are increasingly finding jobs not just in private companies but also at short-staffed government agencies. One such federal worker recently retired for good — at 92.

Not everyone is enamored of age and experience, though. In an eye-opening 2010 book called Managing the Older Worker: How to Prepare for the New Organizational Order (Harvard Business Review Press), Peter Cappelli and Bill Novelli write that many companies are reluctant to hire or retain older workers — even though evidence shows that “on virtually every dimension that is relevant to employers, older workers come out ahead of their younger colleagues.”

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Why the reluctance? Misguided stereotypes and simple prejudice are big reasons. But nearly 9 out of 10 companies say their greatest concern about hiring older workers is the conflicts that would result when younger supervisors manage them, according to Cappelli and Novelli.

Their book addresses this concern. “Younger managers don’t really know how to manage older workers,” they contend. Like the green lieutenant who ignores the advice of the grizzled sergeant, younger managers typically take an authority-driven approach that doesn’t acknowledge older employees’ greater experience and, often, expertise. A far better way to manage older workers, the authors suggest, is to collaborate and lead by example.

P.S. If people are valuable assets, then companies should disclose more information about those assets. At least that’s what the Society for Human Resource Management believes. But CFOs aren’t exactly welcoming the society’s proposed standard for human-capital disclosure with open arms, as David McCann reports in “Show Us the Talent.”