When it comes to figuring out how to keep employees excited about their jobs, most managers focus on a worker’s age. Julie McCracken cautions against this narrow prism.

A senior director at Padilla and an expert in employee engagement, McCracken believes career stage is as important as generational differences. Her experience was buttressed by new research commissioned by the Minneapolis-headquartered communications consultants, which found two in five employees of all ages and job titles are completely disengaged from their employers.

McCracken, who is based in Richmond, Va., said this reality highlights the need for companies to broaden their approach as the labor market tightens.

Q: A one-size-fits-all approach has never worked when managing people. What makes this study different?

A: There’s a ton of research out there on generations and generational preferences, which is important. Age is part of it, but career stage should also be considered. For example, I’ve been with Padilla and its predecessor agencies for almost 17 years. A colleague of mine is the same age; we’re both working moms, and have similar generational preferences. But she joined the agency a year ago. You have different motivators in the honeymoon stage, when things are new. It’s normal that as you go on, your engagement levels fluctuate. This study looks at the impact of both age and career stage.


Q: How might a company use “age and stage” to motivate its workforce?

A: It’s about not generalizing just based on age or generation. Just because this person is a baby boomer doesn’t mean they have one foot out the door to retirement and aren’t interested in what’s happening here. For people who have been in the workforce a long time, they might be looking for an opportunity to put a mark on something. For that individual, you may want to assign a project where they can see the long-term impact they’re able to make. It’s finding a mix of what’s going to motivate them personally and where they can add value as an employee.


Q: So you might have two new employees decades apart in age, but who are motivated by similar things?

A: It’s possible. A baby boomer would have some of the same feelings a millennial would have when they’re new on the job. They’re still trying to figure out the way things work, all the unspoken rules. They’d both be looking for direction and trying to find a place where they can add value.


Q: Are there traits that employees of any age or stage have in common?

A: People want to be respected in the workplace and feel valued, regardless of whether you’re a boomer or millennial, a newbie or a sage. And employees want their personal and company values to align. That’s the No. 1 driver for engagement. Companies need to clearly articulate their values, and they need to walk that talk. Finally, people want to understand what the company’s objectives are and the role they play. Strong communication plays a critical role in all of these things.


Q: With a tightening labor market, are more companies getting serious about holding on to their existing workers?

A: A lot of our clients are going to be seeing a large percentage of their employees retiring in the next five years or so, and it’s a scary time for them. They want to make sure that they’re retaining employees they have, that they’re transferring that knowledge from the near-retirees to the remaining workforce, and that they’re positioning themselves to attract the next generation of talent. That requires a lot of work. Employee engagement is not about one-off or feel-good events. It requires a long-term strategic plan and a strong company culture.


Q: Does this mean managers must be more deliberate about keeping their workers productive?

A: Employee engagement used to be an area that people looked at as a “nice to have.” What we’re finding, and research has proved, is that it’s really critical in everything, from recruiting and retaining employees to growing your bottom line. With today’s labor market, companies really don’t have a choice. Smart companies are paying attention to their culture, and how emotionally connected their employees are. If you look at the stats on what it takes to hire and onboard new employees vs. keeping employees, there are all sorts of reasons why making sure your employees are happy, engaged and motivated to work hard for you makes good business sense. A strong employee engagement program should be a critical part of your business. More companies are starting to see that.