Older workers can save your business

No matter where you get your news, it’s hard to go a day without reading an article about the devastating shortage of hourly and front-line workers. They are missing in action in workplaces as diverse as food service, airlines, home health care, gyms, office staff and elder care. The constant effort to find, hire and retain them has been a losing proposition for many business owners, and has tragically led many to downsize or close their doors permanently. What was once called the “Great Resignation” now looks like the “Great Restructuring” as more and more young and middle-aged workers seek jobs that pay fairly and meet their image of what work should look like.

What is conspicuously missing from this picture is the older worker, the 55-90 year old who is “retired” from his midlife profession and is looking for a second income to supplement his social security, savings, and possibly retirement. Many older adults look on one hand to a longer, healthier life, and on the other to skyrocketing food and gas prices that have reached levels never seen before. Many of them are scared and wonder how they will reconcile their decreasing income with increasing consumer prices.

These older workers differ in many important ways from job seekers aged 25 to 50, and employers who lose sleep every night over the inability to get good help would do well to give these older workers a serious look. In their December 2022 Harvard Business Review article, Bob Kramer, Paul Irving, Jacquelyn Kung, and Ed Frauenheim paint a very compelling picture of today’s older workers and why you should hire them. Their research, based on an Activated Insights survey of 35,000 older workers in the US who participated in the Fortune 100 Great Place to Work Trust Index, highlighted the importance of empathy and understanding in the workplace and moving from “transactional” employee relationships to a more empathic level of engagement.

The research resulted in the development of seven principles for attracting and retaining older, experienced workers – for any role:

1. Design roles full of respect and purpose

Jobs that connect people to the company’s mission are more attractive and allow workers to connect their tasks to the company’s goals and purpose. Jobs that allow people to say “I’m needed here” and “I have an opportunity to serve the client in an important way” are important for older workers. They probably spent most of their lives observing (and perhaps doing) jobs that had that quality and some that didn’t. They know the difference.

2. Schedule and enable flexible schedules

Older workers surveyed in the study believe that flexibility around shifts and leave is key to their late work experience. Different industries have different workplace needs, but thinking outside the box about scheduling, allowing workers to deal with important personal matters as they arise, will pay big dividends in loyalty and a willingness to go above and beyond when the company needs them later.

3. Pay for the job, not the mandate

When looking at the top 10 factors that correlate with hiring and retaining older workers, compensation doesn’t rank among them. More important is the focus on the value of their work and the flexibility you can offer. The researchers cite work by Josh Bersin and Thomas Chamorro-Premuzic who argue that companies looking for older workers should emphasize equality by job and level rather than age at the company.

4. Adapt to physical challenges

Creating a good environment for older workers may involve some modest changes to the work environment. More frequent opportunities to sit may be necessary for those who experience pain in their feet or legs when standing for long periods of time. Taking it a step further, you might want to ask your older employees, what changes would make their working life more comfortable. Different people have different needs. Chances are that when they are given the opportunity to make some changes, you will find that they are more effective than your younger employees at the same job – but in a different way.

5. Communicate clearly and honestly

Based on survey responses, the authors note that “when leaders communicate clearly and honestly, they create a positive environment that takes full advantage of the experience of older workers.” However, since they are generally less experienced, your younger employees may need some training on how to do this, especially those managing frontline workers. This investment is likely to pay off handsomely when people learn to communicate respectfully and honestly both ways. This builds trust and people tend to stay in jobs where they are trusted.

6. Build community and friendship

A fun workplace where people enjoy each other’s company and look forward to going to work every day is, in my opinion, the holy grail. If you get the first five of these principles right, you’re setting yourself up to foster this kind of community in action.

There are many ways to sponsor and nurture this kind of atmosphere. Picnics in the summer, Halloween costume contests, pumpkin carving, snowball making, etc. are all ways to bring fun into the workplace, but you can do it in your own unique environment.

The other side of community building is growth compassionate working place. Allowing people extra time off during a personal crisis, celebrating births and birthdays, sending cards and flowers in times of illness or death are all ways to show your workers you care, and this will promote the same kind of compassion among them too.

7. Fight against aging

If you respect your workers for their contributions and talents, regardless of their age, you will be a beacon of light in an age-stricken world. Highlight your older workers whenever and wherever you can and be a role model for the fight against aging. Also, be careful because age policies can be presented in insidious ways and create a zero-tolerance environment in your company.

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