Bridging the generation gap in security

April 29, 2016
Why it’s important to leverage generational diversity within your organization

One of the most important but seldom discussed aspects of any security program is the people an organization employs to watch over its most valuable assets. Installing the latest and greatest technology or rigidly adhering to industry best practices means nothing if the employees responsible for overseeing them lack the ability to do their jobs effectively.  While a prerequisite skill set is required for each position within a security department – from a guard on the frontline to an executive in the C-suite – organizations that want to build a top notch program know they must also create and foster a culture that is both diverse and inclusive.

That means not only hiring people from a wide range of racial and ethnic backgrounds but also those who can bring generational diversity to the organization. Bridging the gap between people of varying generations can prove tricky as each one (Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X and Millennials) tends to harbor stereotypes about the other and approaches life and work from a slightly different frame of reference. However, it is these differences that make having such a generationally diverse workforce so beneficial to organizations.   

“Diversity is counting heads, inclusion is making heads count and generational diversity is one element of what diversity is,” Nichole Barnes Marshall, global head of diversity and inclusion at insurance giant Aon, told attendees at the Security Executive Council’s recently held Next Generation Security Leader event in Atlanta. “Inclusion is making heads count and that’s the culture of an organization to value those differences.”

According to Marshall, most companies tend to focus strictly on the diversity aspect of that equation, which can have a detrimental impact on an organization when it comes to retaining good employees.

“You have an organization that has a representative mix but without that sense of feeling valued and appreciated and fully leveraged within that organization, people end up voting with their feet. And as you think about talent in the area of risk management and security and the landscape of talent and the war for talent that there is in the marketplace right now, it’s not simple enough to say, ‘how can we go out and find the best people,’ but it is also what you are doing to attract the best people such that you are a destination for the best talent,” she added.        

Of course, being inclusive with regards to generational differences is an important aspect of building a security organization that can attract and retain top tier talent. This is something that, until recently, had been a major challenge in organizations when it came to hiring security professionals. For years, the typical corporate security practitioner was an older male with a background in the military or law enforcement. That has begun to change more recently as this demographic retires and leaves the workforce; then combine that with an ever increasing number of colleges and universities that are now offering security-related degree programs and you encounter a noticeable personnel shift  in the industry.

Still, much work remains to be done with regards to developing security programs that are reflective of the generational differences among today’s workers. However, when you look at the stereotypes that people have used to form their opinions of these various generations; it’s easy to see how some may find it difficult to work with people of varying age groups given their preconceived notions. Among these stereotypes, according to Marshall, include:

  • Traditionalists (born before 1946) – A bit out of touch with modern life, almost universally admired by other generations.
  • Baby Boomers (born 1946-1965 – Authoritarian, resistant to change, less technology inclined, competitive, judgmental of differing opinions.
  • Generation X (born 1966-1980) – Cynical, hesitant to share information, prefer to work alone.
  • Millennials/Generation Y (born 1981-2000) – Fickle, naïve, lazy, impatient, disloyal, entitled, high-maintenance.

Marshall said it is important for security managers to be mindful of these stereotypes to ensure that they don’t propagate or reinforce them in how they engage with employees in their organization. In addition, Marshall said that it is also important for companies to take a more standardized approach in their hiring process to help rid themselves of some of these biases when considering potential candidates.

“One of the things we advise our clients is, especially to eliminate biases whether that’s generational bias or cultural… is if it’s certain competencies that are most important, using certain assessment tools or standardized interview screening questions so that you’re able to effectively track or differentiate the responses based on the same questions rather than an interview where you have a rapport with someone and where the nature of your questions are going to be very different  than with someone you may not naturally have a rapport with,” said Marshall. “Really getting to a more standardized approach helps eliminate bias in the process from a generational lens, a cultural lens, industry lens, etc.”

Despite their differences, each generation also delivers value to the organization in their own unique ways. When it comes to on-the-job strengths, for example, Traditionalists provide stability, while Baby Boomers tend to be service-oriented team players. For their part, Generation Xers are adaptable and technology literate, while Millennials excel at being tech-savvy multi-taskers.  

“It is interesting when you focus on the strengths, you can see something that you can use and value and leverage from each generation rather than focusing on the negatives,” said Marshall. “If the strategy that you have is more technologically-driven, then that’s where you engage your Millennials. If the strategy requires a level of relationship management, then that’s when you engage your Boomers and Traditionalists or those that exhibit those competencies and skills. The opportunity to really hone in on the strengths depends on how you engage and value everyone across the different generations.”    

Although there are numerous benefits to having a generationally diverse workforce, there are still challenges that organizations must overcome to create an environment where people with diverse backgrounds can effectively work together. Perhaps the biggest challenge is in how people of different generations prefer to communicate with one another. While Traditionalists and Baby Boomers tend to prefer face-to-face communication and regular meetings, Gen Xers and Millennials are usually the exact opposite, preferring electronic communications mediums and infrequent meetings. To overcome this and other challenges, Marshall believes that companies again have to turn to the strengths that each possesses.

“To the degree that we understand the strengths or focus on the strengths, then that helps to overcome the challenges, especially around communication, if you know the levers to pull to engage people by generation,” she added. “It’s important to recognize some of the challenges that exist, especially as it plays out in a workplace safety or security environment.”

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