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Tips on Managing the Generation Gap at Work

With more baby boomers forced to put off retirement, many small-business owners will find they are managing staff much older than themselves.

With 401(k)s and pensions in the tank, more and more people will find it necessary to work well into what once would have been their golden retirement years. As a result, small-business owners may find they are employing a larger number of graying workers.

For those business owners who find they are managing staff much older than themselves, here are nine tips to help manage wisely.

Walk a Mile in Their Shoes

Older employees are often juggling complicated lives -- taking care of children and elderly parents. They, unlike Gen X'ers and Gen Y'ers, are also confronting for the first time the possibility that they may never really retire, says Keren Smedley, co-author of Age Matters: Employing, Motivating and Managing Older Employees. And now that companies are shedding jobs, these workers may fear they'll be pushed out for younger, cheaper labor.

Small business owners should be sensitive to these fears and find out what their older employees' situations are before tackling job-performance issues.

Be Respectful

Each generation has its own code of conduct, its own rules about manners. Be aware that for some older workers, being polite keeps things running smoothly. That could also mean popping your head into their office or cubicle instead of sending an email, says Casey Hawley, author of Managing the Older Employee: Overcoming the Generation Gap to Get the Most Out of Your Workplace. "Older workers miss relational things like eye contact." Building that communication network can forestall any age resentment.

Time Matters

Another area in which generations differ: time, according to consultant Hawley. "To older workers, being on time defines the quality of your work. So when a manager is not punctual, that may give them reservations. Deadlines for older workers are full of fear and dread. For younger workers, they are targets and may be changed over time."

Motivation Is Key

If you're in a job for a long time, you lose your motivation, regardless of age. Find out what will get that older employee excited about her job again, says Smedley, who is also managing director of a consulting firm that specializes in age-related issues. Are there skills they want to develop? Could mentoring be the ticket? Would a job change recharge them?

Tap Their Experience

Sure, they may not be as fast with texting as you would like, but they do have valuable work experience that should not be ignored. Take time to learn why a strategy didn't work a few years ago. Learn how they do their job before changing the process. Meanwhile, recognize that technology has changed the way business is done. Be patient.

After-Office Hours

When planning an office event, make sure it's something both older and younger staff can enjoy. For example, don't invite employees to a club, which could be off-putting to those who have long put away their dancing shoes.

Don't Pull a Makeover

Resist the urge to change older employees and their ways. Rather, work with them, says Nick Forcier, CEO of Large Software. "What happens is you get stuck working on change rather than working to make sure everyone is happy and working towards the same goal," he adds. So sell change softly and as a team effort.

Build Trust

Forcier -- who started his technology company when he was 27 years old and now manages 15 employees, all but two older than him -- says the most important way to diffuse any age problems is making sure there is trust. "As long as people trust that you will do whatever it takes to get things done, they will trust you and everyone will work together."

Hold Meetings

If problems persist, get that older worker behind closed doors to hash things out. "We have so many elephants in the room and we pretend not to notice that he's 63 and you're the boss at 35," says Smedley. "Talk to them about it."