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7 ways to attract and retain older frontline workers


As companies struggle with labor shortages and skill deficits among their employees, many are looking to hire older and more experienced workers, especially in frontline roles. Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Paul Irving, Bob Kramer, Jacquelyn Kung, and Ed Frauenheim explain seven principles to help employers attract and retain older workers.

Paul Irving is a senior fellow at the Milken Institute and a distinguished scholar-in-residence at the University of Southern California Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. Bob Kramer is the founder and a fellow at Nexus Insights and the strategic advisor for the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care. Jacquelyn Kung is a fellow at Nexus Insights and CEO of Activated Insights. Ed Frauenheim is the co-author of four books, including "A Great Place to Work for All."

Older workers may be the answer to companies' workforce challenges

Employers are currently facing "staff absenteeism, presenteeism, and costly turnover compounded by pent-up consumer frustrations," the authors write.

To address these issues, many companies are looking to hire older and more experienced workers who have not only "loyalty and reliability, but also sound judgement in addressing critical customer needs."

According to the authors, research has shown several benefits to hiring older workers, such as bringing a collaborative spirit and allowing organizations to blend "the energy of youth and the experience of age" in intergenerational teams.

To understand how employers could best engage with this group of workers, the authors conducted a study of 35,000 older, experienced employees in the United States using both interviews and survey data.

Overall, authors determined seven leading principles to help employers attract and engage older workers in essential roles:

1. Create respectful and purposeful roles

In the study, 76% of respondents who would recommend their company to other people said their work "is not 'just a job,'"—suggesting that many older workers are looking for jobs that have social purpose.

According to the authors, it is important to frame essential roles as being meaningful and having a greater purpose. For example, one company in the study had a mission of serving others and specifically recruited older adults who were looking for meaningful "encore" careers.

"Organizations in every industry can elevate purpose and design more meaningful roles," the authors write. "Companies that do this are more likely to attract and retain older workers and workers overall."

2. Allow for flexible schedules

Allowing frontline workers to have flexible scheduling to accommodate health, family, or travel needs can demonstrate considerate and caring leadership. In their study, the authors found that two-thirds of older workers wanted company leaders to show "a sincere interest in me as a person, not just as an employee."

Although business needs should be balanced against flexibility, creative solutions can help make things work.

"It's taking a clean-slate approach. Think of your organization's value proposition for older workers," said an executive the authors interviewed for their study. "You may be able to consider an army of part-time employees. It may be creating unpaid or partially compensated sabbaticals, making it possible to take three months off if an older worker wants it. It will be different based on industry."

3. Focus compensation on the job, not just tenure

Of the 60 factors the authors studied that impact retention and recruitment, compensation was "conspicuously missing from the top 10." Instead, the "[k]ey to attracting and retaining seasoned workers is to focus on the value of their work—not necessarily their years in the workforce," the authors write.

Two other things employers should consider with compensation for older workers are frequent pay periods and a pay philosophy that accounts for inflation. In the study, several respondents said they preferred to be paid weekly, and some said they appreciated when pay adjustments were not always linked to annual cycles.

4. Be adaptive to any physical challenges

In the study, employees said they were much more likely to recommend their workplace when they felt the "facilities contribute to a good working environment."

When it comes to essential workers, this may mean more seating options or assistive devices that help with repetitive motions. In general, changes that "elevate comfort and decrease repetitive physical activities" can be beneficial for all workers and reduce the risk of costly workplace injuries, the authors write.

5. Communicate clearly

Four out of five older employees say they want to stay with a company longer and refer their friends when managers communicate their expectations clearly. However, effective communication can be challenging in frontline roles where managers may be younger and less experienced.

To address this issue, companies should provide training on how to lead intergenerational teams and communicate with older colleagues.

"When leaders communicate clearly and candidly, however, they create a positive environment that takes full advantage of the experience of older workers," the authors write.

6. Foster community and camaraderie among your workers

Over two-thirds of older employees said they prioritize "a fun place to work," especially since many essential roles may be "monotonous and difficult," according to the authors.

By creating a light-hearted and fun workplace, "organizations can nurture a culture of community and camaraderie," which in turn can help "retain older workers, attract talent of all ages, and elevate customer service," the authors write.

7. Address ageism

A significant barrier to employing older workers is ageism, which can negatively affect people's health, well-being, and productivity.

To address ageism, the authors recommend employers use "targeted messaging to elevate the value of experience and age" and implement "leadership training on age bias and the benefits of age-inclusive workplaces, as well as company-wide events that highlight the contributions of older team members."

Ultimately, these principles are applicable towards employees of all ages—not just older ones—and using them can help companies "move from transactional relationships with employees to relationships of empathy and understanding," the authors write. (Irving et al., Harvard Business Review, 12/16)


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