Generational Differences in the Workplace: Careers Aren’t What They Used to Be

Publication: Journal of Managerial Psychology
Article: How have careers changed? An investigation of changing career patterns across four generations
Reviewed by: Lia Engelsted


With the plethora of stories in the media about generational differences in the workplace, a new study provides evidence about what these generational changes may mean for employers. Given the demise of the traditional career path, employees’ career patterns have shifted over time. The current study (Lyons, Schweitzer, & Ng, 2015) analyzed data from the four generations currently in the workforce to provide a greater understanding of shifting career patterns, and how different generations are handling some of the changes that modern employees experience.



Over the 21st century, the labor market shifted from the traditional linear upward career progression within a single organization to more non-traditional arrangements. In the new age, employers no longer provide the stability and job security that they once did, and the current workforce is not as loyal to their employers, changing not only employers but occupations and career paths as well. Additionally, say the authors, careers are affected by downsizing and growing disruptions to work-life balance. As part of the new career perspective, workers today are shifting career paths dynamically, sometimes moving upward, laterally, and even downward. With the advancement of technology and globalization, organizations are becoming “flatter” and they require increased flexibility in the changing economy.

Career mobility includes all of the changes in job, organization, and occupation, as well as status changes. Using new measures to precisely examine career mobility, the authors analyzed a sample of 2,555 professionals in the Mature (born prior to 1946); Baby Boomer (1946-1964); Generation X (1965-1979) and Millennial (1980 or later) generations.

Past research did not typically consider that several different generations of employees may be in the workforce at one time. In order to examine generational differences in the workplace, researchers must account for the varying career and life stages of the different generations in the workforce. The authors provide evidence of the social changes that each generation experienced to have an effect on their career patterns. For example, the Mature generation (born before 1946) was a smaller cohort that benefited from economic growth. With promotions available, individuals from this generation built their legacies based on tenure and upward progression within a single organization.



As hypothesized, the authors found a trend of increased career mobility for each successive generation. Millennials had that the highest level of job and organizational mobility: they were twice as likely to change jobs and organizations as generation Xers, three times as likely as the Boomers, and 4.5 times as likely as the Matures. Generation X had the next highest rate of job changes per year followed by Baby Boomers. The authors theorize that due to technology, globalization, and the need to respond to shifts in the economy, organizations are requiring that workers adapt and be flexible to change jobs.

While the rate of job mobility within an organization increased over the generations, the rate at which people leave organizations to take new jobs did not change much from generation to generation (with the Baby Boomers changing employers slightly more than other generations). In addition, the need for traditional career progression is still strong, with successive generations still desiring upward mobility within organizations.



The authors provide the following advice for human resource strategy:

  • To combat the high job mobility, provide short term benefits to attract and retain employees.
  • To appeal to the younger generations, provide shorter career milestones to appeal to their desire to progress quickly.
  • If upward mobility is not possible, provide opportunities such as job rotation, rehiring of former employees, or partnering with other organizations to appeal to employees’ pursuit of individualistic goals.

This advice will better prepare organizations to adapt and succeed in the ever-changing world of work.

Human Resource Practices Influence How Employees Spend their Time at Work

Publication: Journal of Personnel Psychology
Article: Perceived Human Resource Management Practices: Their effect on absenteeism and time allocation at Work
Reviewed by: Andrew Morris


Human resource practices are important, and so is the way in which employees choose to spend their time at work. Both undoubtedly impact organizational productivity and effectiveness. New research (Boon, Belschak, Den Hartog, & Pijnenburg, 2014) explores the ways that an organization’s human resource management (HRM) practices influence the time employees spend on certain tasks, as well as the effects on absenteeism.



The article distinguishes between two ways that employees spend their time: core activities and contextual activities. Core activities are explicitly stated in a job description and contextual activities are not necessarily part of the job description but nonetheless add value to the organization. Core (or task) activities are short-term oriented with immediate payoffs for the organization. Contextual performance does not have immediate payoffs but instead has more long-term benefits for the organization.



Human resource management (HRM) practices affect employees in both positive and negative ways. There are three “bundles”, or types of general HRM practices:

  1. People flow bundle: practices concerned with developing employee skills and training.
  2. Employee relations bundle: practices that support employees such as work/life balance policies, job redesign, and facilitating team work.
  3. Appraisal and reward bundle: practices dealing with monitoring employees and directing their efforts towards organizational objectives.

These practices are communication tools for the organization, which are capable of sending various signals about what the organization values. Employees perceive these practices in different ways, which in turn affects their behavior. The study examined how employee perceptions of these HRM practices affected the time they allotted to task (short-term oriented) or contextual (long-term oriented) activities as well as the impact on absenteeism.



In general the researchers found that perceptions of the HRM bundles were related to employees’ time allocation. For example, employees who perceived that their organization was using the people flow bundle (development of employee skills), spent more time on contextual activities and less time on task activities. In this bundle, the emphasis on employee skills and training concerns long-term results, with employees similarly choosing to focus less on short-term task performance and more on long-term contextual performance.

Results also showed a relationship between certain perceptions of the different HRM bundles and lower job satisfaction and ultimately higher absenteeism. This implies that work situations perceived unfavorably due to organizational practices may lead to employee dissatisfaction, which ultimately leads to the employees being absent from work.



This study shows how various HRM policies can encourage either short-term task activities or long-term contextual activities. Each has different relevance to different employee groups at different times and highlights how HRM practices can facilitate the strategic goals of the organization. Another important aspect for consideration is that organizations should be aware of the relative costs associated with certain HRM practices. For example, practices that encourage contextual activities divert employees’ time and effort away from task activities that have an immediate payoff, and towards activities that have more long term payoffs. Organizations may want to consider which is more important for their success.

Age-Inclusive HR Practices Lead to Improved Organizational Outcomes


Most industrialized countries are facing challenges posed by aging populations. Correspondingly, companies have to manage and engage a more age-diverse workforce than ever before. Sometimes, employees from three or even four different generations may work in the same company. Boehm, Kunze, and Bruch (2014) examined the effects of age-inclusive HR practices on organizational outcomes and found promising results.



Age-inclusive HR practices may include, but are not limited to, age-neutral recruitment and selection practices, equal opportunities to training, promotion, and transfer, and promotion of an organizational culture that values employees’ contributions regardless of their age. Basically, the HR practices should consistently reflect the organization’s commitment to an age-diverse workforce.



Age-inclusive HR practices impact organizational outcomes indirectly through age-diversity climate. Age-diversity climate is defined as “organizational members’ shared perceptions of the fair and nondiscriminatory treatment of employees of all age groups with regard to all relevant organizational practices, policies, procedures and rewards.” In other words, it refers to employees’ shared impression that the organization takes an age-neutral approach to recruitment, promotions, and other employment practices.

Age-inclusive HR practices serve as signals of an age-diversity climate to employees. Employees are likely to perceive the organization as more just, supportive, trustworthy, and having a long-term interest in employees. Therefore, employees will reciprocate with more work-related effort and support for their colleagues, which will contribute to improved organizational performance. Also, organizational commitment and intent to stay will increase, thus reducing turnover intentions.

Through a survey study with 93 German companies, the researchers found that companies with more age-inclusive HR practices enjoyed better age-diversity climate and better organizational outcomes in areas of company growth, financial performance, return on assets, employee productivity, and efficiency of business procedures.



HR practitioners need to be aware of the demographic change of the workforce and be prepared to handle this trend. Age-inclusive HR practices that address equal access to employment, promotion, training, and opportunity to contribute may be a valuable tool. In order to further promote an age-diversity climate, HR practitioners should also make sure to communicate these practices to employees to increase their awareness. Lastly, age-inclusive HR practices are advantageous to all organizations, not only those featuring a high age-diverse workforce.

Restrictive Work Policies: Gaining Employee Buy-In

Publication: Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (2013)
Article: Response to restrictive policies: Reconciling system justification and psychological reactance
Reviewed by: Rachel Williamson

In this day and age, many managers are finding themselves in the tough position of enforcing restrictive work policies on their employees. For example, a company may no longer allow vacation days to be taken during a busy week or on specific days of the week. This can be a tough position. Getting employee buy-in on restrictive work policies can prove quite challenging. Yet, the manager has to enforce what is best for the company, while at the same time keeping the employees content with their job. So, when enforcing a restrictive policy is necessary, how can managers simultaneously keep their employees happy?

This article looks at four studies that examined enforcing restrictive work policies in different scenarios, and how they helped or hurt employees’ adoption of the policies. Ultimately, these studies suggest that employees can be more hostile to policies, when the policy is presented as restrictive. However, when employees learn of a similarly restrictive policy, but aren’t given any indication that the policy is restrictive, they will not respond as negatively.

For organizations, this means, when enforcing a restrictive work policy, careful phrasing and presentation is important. If the policy is introduced without indications that it is restrictive, many employees will justify the organization’s need for the policy.

The authors of this article did not specifically argue organizations should always use this tactic to enforce restrictive policies on their employees more easily. However, it a good tool, allowing management to do what is best for the organization, without triggering negative feelings in those affected. Of course, this tactic should be orchestrated in the background and not openly discussed. It is important to note too, that even if this tactic is employed, employees may still arrive at their own conclusions that a policy is restrictive. Rather than this being the go-to tactic for restrictive work policies, it may be a better fit for organizations having a difficult time with employee buy-in. If organizations are able to sell restrictive work policies to employees without identifying that the policy is restrictive, the employees may subconsciously justify the policy, allowing the organization to have an easier time putting the policy into action.

Implementing Creative Ideas at Work

Publication: Academy of Management Journal (2012)
Article: Putting creativity to work: The implementation of creative ideas in organizations
Reviewed by: Megan Leasher

Creativity is an interesting thing. It tends to strike people differently at different times. For me, I am most creative in the air; generally while enjoying my micro-pretzels from Delta.

But creativity is completely useless unless you can make your ideas a reality. In my job, I am lucky that I have a cool boss who lets me bring my weird, atypical ideas to life. (I’m also hoping I get props from my boss for calling her “cool” in print.)

Sadly, the implementation of creative ideas at work is not simple. Creativity challenges the status quo. Change can make people uncomfortable, even combative. People often resist creativity, because they aren’t sure the results will be worth the risk.

In this study, researchers wanted to learn what factors lead to creative solutions. Specifically, they found that individuals with many creative ideas were more likely to have those ideas implemented when they also possessed a high motivation for successful completion, strong ties within the organization (for buy-in), and robust networking abilities. But when the researchers dug a little deeper, they found some factors predicted implementation more than others. Overall, the findings suggest that the link between creative ideas and their implementation is very complex, and must take into account individual, relationship, and situational factors.

Creativity does not equate to implementation; just as micro-pretzels do not equate to being in first class.

What do you think helps get creative ideas at work implemented?

Good Stats Make Us Uncomfortable (IO Psychology)

Topic: Organizational Performance, Statistics, Strategic HR
Publication: Harvard Business Review (OCT 2012)
Article: The True Measures of Success
Authors: M. J. Mauboussin
Reviewed By: Megan Leasher

Down2In striving for profitability, companies often rely on key indicators of organizational performance.  Common indicators like sales growth, customer loyalty, and earnings per share often guide strategy decisions and resource allocation.  But sometimes key indicators may not be that “key” after all.  They may have little or no true connection to profitability.

Organizations might not be aware of this and continue to rely on these same measures because they feel as though they matter.  Their intuition overrides everything else and as a result they don’t do the due diligence to determine what actually leads to profit.  They become overconfident, grab onto any numbers that are easily available, and rely on things they have always looked at in the past.  They choose what they like and what feels comfortable.  But they don’t actually analyze.  So how can we know if something truly predicts value?  We cannot leverage something we don’t know.

This article focuses on identifying indicators that serve as true statistical predictors of value.  The author emphasizes that for an indicator to be truly connected to value it must be both predictive and persistent.  Indicators that are predictive demonstrate a statistical link to value; a link strong enough that we feel confident saying there is a connection that has meaning and is not due to chance.  Indicators that are persistent stand the test of time; they reliably show that that an outcome is controlled by applying skill or knowledge, and is not random.

The author advocates several steps in selecting the best indicators of organizational performance.  These steps include defining a clear business objective, developing theories to determine what measures might link to the objective, and statistically testing the relationship between the measures and the objective.

As I read these steps they made complete sense to me, but my data-happy left brain went nuts, thinking about others questions that should be considered.  Like: “What else do we already measure?…Could it matter?” and “What else can we measure?…What else should we measure?” and “What other viewpoints are we not taking into account?” and “What curveballs could come our way?”

Sometimes a meaningful statistic can push us out of our comfort zone.  Actually, sometimes a meaningful statistic should push us out of our comfort zone.  It might not make automatic, inherent sense to us, especially at first.  If all statistics made complete, gut-happy sense to us we wouldn’t need them.  We could always rely on our intuition because it would always be correct.  But statistics are useful because they not only tell us how meaningful things might be related; they can surprise us with the sheer fact of what things might be related.

If a predictor of success isn’t pointing in the direction of success, it’s not a predictor.  It’s simply a number.  And a useless one at that.

Mauboussin, M. J. (October 2012).  The true measures of success.  Harvard Business Review, 46-56.

human resource management, organizational industrial psychology, organizational management





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Inviting the Inquiry of Science into Strategic Planning (IO Psychology)

Topic: Business Strategy, Creativity, Strategic HR
Publication: Harvard Business Review (SEPT 2012)
Article: Bringing Science to the Art of Strategy
Authors: A. G. Lafley, R. L. Martin, J. W. Rivkin, and N. Siggelkow
Reviewed By: Megan Leasher

Strategic planners sit down once a year.  They pride themselves on their scientific rigor in how they analyze and shoot down every idea they generate.  They then proceed with a less-than-stellar, not-so-innovative idea, and they wonder why the organization doesn’t swoon with delight?  Lafley and colleagues (2012) assert that a key component of science is missing in these proceedings: the inquiry.  They argue that the scientific method must first begin with the brainstorming of novel hypotheses, then proceed into the design and testing of these hypotheses.  The authors detail a series of steps that incorporate the inquiry of science into strategic planning to achieve a more creative, successful, and efficient direction.

The first step is the key differentiator of the entire process.    This step entails identifying at least two mutual exclusive options to resolving the issue at hand.  All options must be framed as pure possibilities, devout of criticism, skepticism, and analysis.  This is where the invention and inquiry of science comes into play.  This is where we all get to be creative designers and dream into the realm of pure possibilities.  The authors describe possibility as any “happy story that describes how a firm might succeed” (p. 59).

Then the list of possibilities is broadened and time is taken to identify what conditions must hold true in order for each possibility to succeed.  Conditions may include things like customer support, market sustainability, or feasibility of supply.  All conditions must be framed positively, so that everyone feels confident in success if all conditions were to hold true.  Judgment, skepticism, and analysis are not yet allowed, so that all possibilities continue to be framed as positive.  After this, barriers that would prevent each condition to hold true are identified and ranked.  We now allow judgment and skepticism through the door, but analysis must still wait outside.

The next step is where experiments are designed to test the barriers to each condition.  We must ask: What are the right questions that will lead us to answers that we can have faith in?  As the authors mention, tests can be as simple as talking to a supplier, or as complicated as surveying thousands of customers.

We then conduct the tests and allow the scientific analysis to begin.  It’s time to put on our goggles, get data happy, and crunch the numbers.  The authors assert that the first test should always be of the condition that the group feels will least likely hold true.  If the test fails and the barrier is confirmed true, no further testing is needed and the possibility is rejected.  If the condition passes the test, move on to the next condition unlikely to hold true, and so on.  Tests for a possibility should only be conducted sequentially, never in parallel, to conserve effort and resources.

Lastly, the final possibility is selected.  After reviewing the results of all tests of the barriers, the group simply picks the solution with the fewest serious barriers left standing.  It is a relavitvely simple, anticlimactic step; all of the hard work has already been completed and we are left with practically a simple tally count.  It is important to call out that testing barriers to conditions provides evidence, not proof.  Evidence still requires human judgment that is fully aware that risk is always present.

I feel this framework has such potential and would love to see its value play out first hand.  But controlling the judgment and skepticism early on is a monumental challenge; this process requires a shift in mindset and determined, focused group leaders who can direct participants to frame all choices as possibilities for success.  Plus, a geek like me wants to jump right into the test design and analysis.  But to be “scientific,” we must inquire.  Science isn’t just analysis; it’s play, and brainstorming, and invention beyond your brain’s current capacity.

Lafley, A. G., Martin, R. L., Rivkin, J. W., Siggelkow, N. (Sept 2012).  Bringing science to the art of strategy.  Harvard Business Review, 57-66.

human resource management, organizational industrial psychology, organizational management



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Improve service climate to retain customers and increase profitability

Topic: Organizational Performance, Strategic HR
Publication: Human Resource Management (MAY/JUNE 2011)
Article: The service climate-firm performance chain: The role of customer retention
Authors: Towler, A., Lezotte, D. V., & Burke, M. J.
Reviewed by: Alexandra Rechlin

When an organization wants to improve customer retention and therefore its profitability, it will often turn to marketing. But could HR provide another option? In this study, Towler, Lezotte, and Burke (2011) tested a model of the way in which service climate (conceptualized and measured by concern for employees and concern for customers) affects profitability.

The authors hypothesized that showing concern for employees would lead to employees showing concern for customers, which in turn would lead to customer satisfaction. Satisfied customers are more likely to return, so customer satisfaction was predicted to lead to customer retention, which in turn was predicted to lead to store profitability. This model was tested using a huge sample of over 12,000 employees in 1,500 tire retail/vehicle service stores. The authors found full support for the model.

The results of this study indicate that if you want your employees to show concern for customers, you must first show concern for your employees. Their subsequent showing of concern for customers leads to more satisfied customers, who in turn become repeat customers, and that means profitability. Marketing therefore is not the only group that the organization should turn to for advice on customer retention – they should look to HR as well!

Towler, A., Lezotte, D. V., & Burke, M. J. (2011). The service climate-firm performance chain: The role of customer retention. Human Resource Management, 50, 391-406. Doi: 10.1002/hrm.20422

Is Bureaucracy Bad for Creativity? That Depends on You

Topic: Creativity, Strategic HR, Teams
Publication: Academy of Management Journal
Article: How does bureaucracy impact individual creativity? A cross-level investigation of team contextual influences on goal orientation-creativity relationships
Authors: Giles Hirst, Daan Van Knippenberg, Chin-Hui Chen, & Claudia A. Sacramento
Reviewed By: Katie Bachman

Bureaucracy and creativity. They might seem like mortal enemies—we often think of red tape and paper work as the killer of creative thinking—but it doesn’t have to be! Really, it depends on your employees. When we talk about goal orientation (why people do what they do), we usually take about three types of people. First, you have your learning-oriented workers. These are the ones who do what they do for sheer enjoyment of the work. They are intrinsically motivated. Second, you have your performance-prove-oriented employees. These workers want to show you how good they are. Third and finally, you have your performance-avoid workers. These are your risk-adverse employees—the rule followers. They all respond to bureaucracy differently, particularly when it comes to creativity.

We can divide bureaucracy into two dimensions—centralization and formalization. Centralization deals with the amount of decision making ability team members have. The more centralized decision making is, the less team members have opportunity to add their input. Formalization deals with the paperwork. It’s the policies and procedures employees have to adhere to in their job. Like centralization, the more formal the procedure, the less wiggle-room there is for workers.


Increase generic human capital to increase unit-specific human capital

Topic: Organizational Performance, Talent Management, Strategic HR
Publication: Academy of Management Journal (APR 2011)
Article: Acquiring and developing human capital in service contexts: The interconnectedness of human capital resources
Authors: Ployhart, R. E., Van Iddekinge, C. H., & MacKenzie, W. I.
Reviewed by: Alexandra Rechlin

It is widely acknowledged that human capital is important, but does it matter whether the capital is generic (transferable to other organizations) or unit-specific (valuable to that particular work unit and not to others)? In this article, Ployhart, Van Iddekinge, and MacKenzie (2011) assessed both generic and unit-specific human capital in a large fast-food organization. They created and tested a model for how the two kinds of human capital relate to each other and to performance and effectiveness outcomes.

The level of generic human capital was based on the cognitive ability and personality of hired applicants, while unit-specific human capital was based on employees’ additional training.  The authors found that changes in generic and unit-specific human capital were positively related over time; that is, as generic human capital increased, so did unit-specific human capital. In addition, changes in unit-specific human capital were positively related to changes in unit service performance behavior (efficiency, service, quality), and changes in unit service performance behavior were positively related to changes in unit service effectiveness (unit financial success).

In other words, hire employees who are smart and whose personalities fit with their jobs.  This will establish strong bench strength and will set the organization up for success as employees are trained to build the skills necessary to excel in specific roles.