Keep and Develop Tenured Employees: They are a Core Value of Your Company
When I was 40 years old, I told a 50-year-old colleague that I was thinking about changing careers. He said to me, “you better do it now because when you’re 50 years old you’ll not be taken seriously by any company”. I disregarded this as a “older person’s” bias and self-fear. I thought it was ridiculous, and figured he was making excuses for his own lack of career growth. While I believed it was a self-fulfilling prophecy on his part, it’s difficult to ignore the strong workplace bias towards mature, tenured employees. I can’t tell you the number of times somebody had told me that they were laid off because they made too much money, or the career train stopped for people because of ageism. I’m certain in some cases these things were true.
Employee sociology has changed and shifted a lot in the last few decades. However, there exists a bias and unstated belief that mature workers are not providing the potential value they could. Whose fault is that really? We’ve all read the articles or attended the seminars where a consultant explains the differences in each generation in the workforce. We hear how younger workers expect shorter hours, need a lot of supervision, and don’t have the grit of the older worker. I argue that these biases should not be adopted either. Generalization of any generation of worker is unproductive. It is limiting to people’s lives and your company. Doesn’t diversity, equity, inclusion include age? The fact is, diversity in the workplace produces a great amount of psychological safety, a richness in the difference of ideas and solutions, and the wisdom of the whole spectrum to make decisions, lead, and create sustainable organizations.
In the quest for new hires in this stifling labor market, tenured employees can be forgotten or de-emphasized. These workers have typically been with the organization for several years and likely have a wealth of knowledge and experience that can be invaluable. These tenured employees often have a deep understanding of the company’s culture, values, and history, and may have established strong relationships with colleagues and clients. They may also have a deep understanding of the company’s products, services, and processes. However, tenured employees face some workplace challenges not experienced by their newer or younger colleagues. As leaders, this value needs to be tapped and leverage with a little perspective and work on our part.
Doing some research, I was looking for the answer to this question: “What are the challenges and benefits of keeping and developing long-term employees?”. The first few responses I received tended to be biased against tenured workers, including concepts of skill obsolescence, resistance to change, compensation expectations, and lack of fresh perspective. However, these were balanced with the value of institutional knowledge, enhanced productivity, engagement, loyalty, mentoring, and opportunities for succession to leadership. But I couldn’t help wondering how prevalent it is that organizational leaders take this balance into perspective.
We hear a great deal about the concept of quite quitting, which has been emphasized for mostly younger workers. The concept rests on the idea that that their work life is unfulfilling, so some have decided that work is only a means to the end so the other aspects of their lives can have some sense of fulfillment. Post COVID, with all the new realities of the workplace, most of us had to re-evaluate our work life, and its meaning to us. I think it’s healthy to evaluate this balance. Our goal should be finding work that has meaning and is in balance with the rest of our lives. More to the point, people have become conscious of self-actualization wherever they can find it. It seems that corporations are beginning to consider this concept of helping employees find the proper balance between being a productive contributor and having a balanced life that’s fulfilling. Yet, we accuse tenured employees of guarding their time too closely.
Frustration of Being Forgotten
After we published our last blog about developing high-potential employees, I received several emails from older colleagues expressing their frustration of why we are not developing our more tenured employees. One example was of a 65-year-old professional who was told she did not get the promotion because she could only work 32 hours a week in the office. Now 32 hours a week is a relative concept. Being a leader, or getting promoted, likely comes with the expectation of working smarter, and not necessarily harder. Would a younger worker have accepted that same excuse? In this new socially conscious world are we really still measuring productivity by hours in the office?
The new reality is that we need to adopt our workplaces to accommodate the most talented people, regardless of their personal situation. If an employee, whatever age, is just mailing it in, putting in the minimum effort, and not developing their skills, then they shouldn’t advance. But if they are valued, contributing, and being productive that should be leveraged not dismissed. We should expect smart, hard work that does not disregard personal needs and allows people to be fully who they want to be in their whole lives.
Resistant to Change
We all resist change, regardless of age or circumstance. Human beings, by nature, seek stability. In our lives, we pursue the creation of habits and routines that are familiar to us. These habits and routines make things comfortable and create foundations for future growth. When these familiar routines are disrupted, it feels like we’re going backwards, and we resist at all costs. Some of us resist things for a second, an hour, a month, and sometimes we never accept it. The important point here is that initially any change is disruptive, and we will resist it naturally. Regardless of age. To say that older workers resist change in general, by default, is simply not true. And like managing our time, we should not generalize. We should recognize and treat all change as a process that all people go through.
When thinking about why this challenge comes up regarding tenured, older workers it sometimes feels like an excuse. A fundamental role of managers and leaders is to help people move through that change. I can’t help believing that the leader who’s trying to produce change ignores the need to change themselves to help people through it. Sure, it’s easier to just move forward with those that are totally accommodating, but what are we leaving behind? Sometimes, the perception is that a little pushback means the employee doesn’t want to participate. But, if we view pushback as discernment, measure, and wisdom, we might find better answers, or we might use those questions to understand how to help people deal with change. As I get older, I don’t want to waste time or suffer fools either. I argue that none of us should. If everybody surrounding us just says yes to us and we can’t tolerate a little turbulence, are we really getting the right answer?
Recognizing Historical Value
Some arguments include how tenured, older workers seemed to always be regressing to “how things used to be”. Honestly, this aggravates me too. Especially when I hear someone say, “This is how we used to do it to do it” or “back in the day…”. The question I have is: why do some people address things that way? They could be providing valuable historical information for the sake of its value and not just be reminiscing. Or they could be reminiscing because they perceive their value as that and nothing else. I believe people tend to do this when they feel insecure and want to articulate their knowledge and value. This assumes that they don’t feel part of the community and are not emotionally linked to the current organization situation. If the only thing they can offer is history, it’s likely because we have not asked what their future vision looks like. As leaders, we must draw people out regardless of their tenure. We need to link them directly to the mission and include them in the diverse discussion of ideas and decisions. Allow them to show their future value.
Tenured employees should be a core value of your company. The generalization of older workers often leaves them on the outside of the company’s future. This is bothersome because instead of exploring the needs and values of older employees, they are simply dismissed as not with the current times. In our haste, we don’t seek to understand how their historical perspectives or measured approaches can add value to the organization. Some of these actions may be unintentional or the result of a lack of awareness. However, if you recognize some of these symptoms in your organization, reach out and let’s talk about how your organization can leverage your older workforce to deliver future success.