The Intergenerational Divide


Edited by Dennis McGuffie

An internal audit shop struggles to bridge the generation gap.


Evelyn Urkel is the chief audit executive (CAE) for InaTech Controls, a large auto parts manufacturer with US $2 billion in annual sales. Evelyn joined InaTech’s internal audit department four years ago from public accounting and was promoted to CAE two years later. After her promotion, some of the longer term employees in the group who felt they were more qualified for the position began to leave and have gradually been replaced with younger workers. Consequently, the department’s generational mix has shifted from what was a solid majority of Baby Boomers to a more even mix of Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y. 

Evelyn believes the existing generational mix strikes a perfect balance, and she is pleased with the new additions to her group. She was shocked, therefore, when Ted — one of her most promising young auditors — informed her that he is leaving InaTech because he doesn’t feel his contributions are appreciated. Immediately after speaking with Ted, Evelyn consulted two of her managers, Bill and Joanna, to see if they were aware of Ted’s unhappiness. The older and more tenured Bill responded, “Yes I knew, but what are you going to do? These kids expect to be pampered and praised constantly. Who has time for that? I’ve got work to do and deadlines to meet. I don’t have time to baby grownups.”

Joanna, one of Evelyn’s newer managers, said she too was aware of Ted’s dissatisfaction. “I tried to convince Ted to stay,” she said. “I asked him to help us make the changes needed to bridge the generational gaps that are bothering all of the younger workers, but his mind was made up.”

“Don’t think it’s just you youngsters that aren’t happy with this situation,” Bill replied. “If you’d take those earplugs out of your ears and listen to some of us with a little more experience, things would run a lot smoother.” 

Evelyn is speechless. Had she completely misjudged the state of workplace relationships? She began to wonder if the department was on the brink of falling apart or if the cross-generational relationships could be salvaged. Had she made a mistake thinking that a balanced blend of multigenerational workers could be a winning formula? What is the best plan of action at this point? 


Bob Lund

Director of Audit Services

Banner Health

Evelyn is correct in thinking that a blend of multigenerational workers can be a winning formula, as it helps bring different perspectives and skills to the audit function. But the effort does require active management. Both formal team meetings and informal communication, for example, need to take place. The formal meetings can be an opportunity to celebrate group and individual accomplishments and contributions. In our audit department, we begin meetings by recognizing any recent achievements. We also discuss audits in progress, providing staff members who may not be involved in those engagements an opportunity to learn and offer input.

In addition to holding regular team meetings, Evelyn needs to remain in touch with staff. To keep abreast of staff activity and progress, we borrowed the concept of “rounding” from our organization’s medical environment. Leaders are expected to visit staff members regularly to learn how they’re doing and examine their “vital signs.” This informal process provides an excellent opportunity to stay in touch with all members of the group and identify potential issues early so that leaders can address them. The meetings typically don't take much time, and they help demonstrate to the employee that he or she is important.

Finally, Evelyn needs to remind her managers that their positions of authority require that they demonstrate leadership. Bill may not like pampering and praising constantly, but he does need to bring out the best in his team. All employees want to be appreciated for who they are and what they bring to the table.


J. Michael Peppers, CIA

Chief Audit Officer

MD Anderson Cancer Center

Although Evelyn recognizes the value of a generationally diverse team, she appears to have overlooked some of the important needs that such a group may have. Meaningful relationships must start with a foundation of trust. That can be challenging for any group to develop, but it is even more difficult when team members are starting from diverse positions. 

Evelyn should consider providing some basic education to the team, as many of them may not appreciate the magnitude of differences introduced by generational diversity. Educational activities can be structured or nonstructured, and they can be as basic as talking openly about the need to value each other and the contributions each team member can make. Moreover, Evelyn needs to set the tone for an environment in which diversity and respect can thrive. Everyone on the team needs to communicate and remain open to ideas and attitudes that may be very different than their own. For example, a more traditional team member shouldn’t immediately assume that a younger auditor who wears ear buds in the office is neglecting his or her work duties. Many Gen Yers successfully managed their high school and college studies while listening to portable media players — listening to music helps them focus, thus enhancing their productivity.

Evelyn and her management team also need to find the “reward triggers” that work for different groups of individuals. Managers can no longer assume that “one size fits all” in terms of employee recognition. Although everyone enjoys praise, younger staff members seem to have a particular need for active, timely feedback. Moreover, audit groups should celebrate departmental and personal achievements openly — recognition activities don’t have to wait for annual evaluations or compensation adjustments.

Lastly, Evelyn could work to identify opportunities for thoughtfully matching team members among the different generational groups. Finding the right mix of age segments for a team is important not only on engagement assignments but also for administrative and nonwork activities. My staff has said they often learn more about each other in the car on the way to lunch than they might when working on a project.


Donald A. Sinko, CPA

Chief Integrity Officer

Cleveland Clinic

Evelyn did, in fact, misjudge the state of her department’s workplace relationships — she should take advantage of this opportunity to not only salvage these relationships, but to significantly improve them. Maintaining a balanced mix of multigenerational employees can be beneficial, and when managed effectively it can lead to improved departmental performance. 

The department appears to be in need of increased communication among all staff levels. Does Evelyn primarily talk to her managers, or does she also talk frequently to each staff member? Do her department goals include communication and staff development, or are they only focused on production? 

Evelyn may want to consider hiring a consultant with experience in generational differences to meet with her team members and advise them on this topic. Even if her budget does not allow for a consultant, Evelyn can still find a wealth of information on the Internet to help initiate and guide the discussion. She could examine the various approaches that can be effective in improving employee engagement, as well as different ways of communicating and rewarding performance. 

Evelyn should ask her employees to develop an employee engagement plan, which can include a communications plan, a rewards or recognition program, and fun events throughout the year to help employees get to know each other better. The plan would help reduce friction among the generations and enable employees to understand that generational differences can be a departmental strength, not a weakness. 

Intergenerational Divide
This was an excellent article. If feel that the most profound statement that managers need to take away from this article is that managing intergenerational teams require "active management".
Posted By: Carol S.
2010-12-02 9:20 AM


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