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Workforces are experiencing a shift towards larger numbers of older workers and greater diversity of ages within workplaces. Some have suggested that such diversity is likely to lead to conflict, or at least, separation of employees into age-based tribes. In response, some HR departments have introduced policies and practices that encourage collaboration between age groups. However, do they really make a difference in how employees behave towards each other?
Dr Anne Burmeister of the University of Bern, Switzerland led an international team spanning the Netherlands, London, China and Germany (2018, including van der Heijden, B, Yang, J, and Deller, J) to conduct research into the effects of age-inclusive HR practices on the behaviours of employees, working in pairs, who were age-diverse coworkers in China and Germany. What she and her team found was that HR policies and practices had a positive effect on the way these colleagues shared and received knowledge. Whereas age might be seen as a barrier to transferring information to someone older or younger (e.g. fear of ridicule) these results validate that purposively creating an age-inclusive culture has positive outcomes on employee behaviour.
The aim of the study was to test whether age-inclusive HR policies and practices facilitated positive co-worker interactions – specifically knowledge exchange. Age inclusive practices include offering training, and equal opportunities for promotion, to all staff irrespective of age. The study also examined whether country contexts (with China and Germany as examples of collectivist and individualist countries) also influenced knowledge sharing. In particular, is knowledge sharing between age groups more likely in collectivist than individualistic cultures?
In this experiment, researchers contacted HR departments in 12 banks and insurance companies and asked them to identify coworkers who had a 10-year age difference and who worked as pairs but not in a formal way (i.e. leader-follower, mentor-mentee). 159 pairs (corresponding to an 83.25% response rate) responded to a survey. Questions covered:
The data was collected from Chinese and German companies within the financial services sector in order to limit variances attributed to industry differences.
The research resulted in three major findings:
Finding 1: Overall, the study found that there is a positive relationship between age-inclusive HR practices and knowledge sharing between age-diverse coworkers through an age-diverse climate. That is, age inclusive practices influence positive behaviours between co-workers.
Finding 2: With minor exceptions, the positive effects of age inclusive HR practices on co-worker knowledge sharing and receiving did not differ by country. In essence, HR age inclusive practices have positive effects universally.
The study concludes with two practical recommendations:
In order to facilitate greater knowledge sharing and receiving, organisations should invest or continue to invest in HR practices that promote age-diversity and inclusivity. This could look like reviewing standard HR processes from an age inclusion lens to find opportunities for improvement.
Leaders should look to foster a climate that embraces age-diversity and specifically calls out the value of age-diversity in light of contributions of older working populations. This could take the form of leadership training to equip them with the skills to manage and celebrate an age-diverse workforce.
The exchange of knowledge is more important than ever; information is being shared and received at the greatest rate and pace in human history. Furthermore, the future of work is diverse – we know it will look like multiple generations working and collaborating towards common aims. Organisations are perfectly poised to embrace this trend and, as this study demonstrates, HR policies and practices play an important role in shaping employee behaviour.
For more information, contact Hilary Binks.
To read the full article, see Burmeister, A., van der Heijden, B., Yang, J., & Deller, J. (2018 in press). Knowledge transfer in age-diverse co-worker dyads in China and Germany: How and when do age-inclusive HR practices have an effect? Human Resource Management Journal. doi:10.1111/1748-8583.12207