Staff Strategies

How to hire, manage and keep great employees despite the generation gaps

By Margaret Ahrweiler


They come to you with piercings, with tattoos, with cell phones ringing. Their family time is important. Their personal time is important. Their job, perhaps, is not. They keep their lawyer's name on their PDAs. A human resources nightmare? No, just the latest crop of employees.

Hiring—and keeping—quality workers is never easy, but the challenge has grown. Managers now face the dilemma of four different generations of employees under one roof. And the youngest is both the largest and most vexing. The latest generation of employees is driving almost every human resource and staffing issue: recruitment, training, management, appearance issues and retention. Fortunately, with clear policy, a strong sense of direction and a constant reminder that they're generally OK human beings, you can build a standout staff no matter what their age.

In the recreation and fitness industry, an army of the young runs the front lines. At many facilities, up to 80 percent of the work force is born after 1980, with most of those working on a seasonal basis.

Two cases in point: At the Johnson County Parks and Recreation District in Shawnee Mission, Kan., for example, between 68 and 75 percent of the workers are seasonal. The district hires about 500 summer workers every year, and the vast majority are teens and young adults, according to Mary Miller, Johnson County's human resources director. Likewise, the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Houston employs a year-round staff of 25 full-timers and 75 part-timers, then adds 250 seasonals in the summer.

"It's uncommon to get anyone over age 25," says Jordan Shenker, the JCC's assistant executive director.

Who are they?

To get a handle on hiring, managing and retaining, employers need to understand this group, which researcher Robert Wendover has termed the "Millennials."

According to Wendover, director of the Aurora, Colo.-based Center for Generational Studies, they are a product of their time: used to an array of choices, they use "menu-driven" thinking dependent on everything laid out in front of them. They've mastered the art of "working the system," getting that grade changed or punishment averted. Their lives have been structured to capacity by parents who have run their schedules off a wall calendar since birth. They embrace technology, with skills exceeding every other generation's. They are stimulation junkies, raised on fast-cut television and Web surfing. Yet unlike their independence-minded Boomer and Generation X parents, they place a high value on family, fairness and belonging to a group, says Tina Dittmar, staff supervisor for the recreation department of the City of Laguna Niguel, Calif.

Finding them

The first challenge with this group is getting them to work for you, since it's a buyer's market.

"We're laying off software engineers, but we still need $8-an-hour chairlift operators," Wendover says. "They know they're very much in the seat of power."

Playing off the Millennials' affinity for the Internet helps attract workers, as many employers have found.

Since it began posting job opportunities on the Web and offering online applications, Johnson County Parks and Recreation has been flooded with applications, Miller says.

"Kids away at college can apply, and supervisors can contact them via e-mail," she explains. As a result, the district can begin hiring earlier as well.

And while recruiting, managers should not shy from high standards, notes Raul Rehnborg, director of the Soak City Orange County waterpark in Buena Park, Calif. He recalls that in the park's first year, he chose flexible personnel standards for fear of losing people, which resulted in the "hardest summer ever." The next year, he instituted the highest standards possible.

"If an employee was one minute late, he had consequences," he says. "If a guard didn't come in completely clean-shaven, we had a razor in the office."

It worked.

"We are left with an employee population that's so prideful, so conscious of their legacy, it's almost self-policing," he says.

Rehnborg also seeks the cream of the crop for his lifeguard staff of about 170. In January, he sends letters to the coaches of diving, water polo, swimming and surfing teams at 80 schools, offering schedules that accommodate scholastics and athletics and promising that by working at Soak City, team members will become even more responsible, well-rounded and disciplined.

Frequently, good potential employees are hiding right under your nose. Many facilities, especially fitness clubs and gyms, attract staff from their clients.

"We have thousand of members coming through our gyms every day, and we use this to our advantage to recruit," says Suzanne Berthay, human resources director for Venice, Ca.-based Gold's Gym International, which boasts more than 650 gyms worldwide.

Employers must understand the benefits they offer and be honest about the jobs they're posting, says the Houston JCC's Shenker.

"Every company ought to make a list of why it's a good thing to work there," he argues. "There's a family environment, you get lots of training, you provide all the hot dogs you can eat for life. It's no different than if you're selling widgets—you have to know your product."

And employers should never hide the negatives about a job—a common mistake, he adds, since it becomes obvious once a person starts working.

What's more, proper screening will help ensure a more qualified work force. Directors mustn't shy from rejecting poor candidates.

A few of the more interesting red flags Miller has encountered: One applicant took calls on her cell phone during the job interview. Another job seeker listed his qualifications as "cool" and "very cool."

Employers also must consider a wide number of criteria for each position, not only to ensure the best candidate but also to protect themselves from legal tussles later on, notes attorney Tex McIver, a partner with Atlanta-based Fisher & Phillips LLP, a national law firm specializing in labor law. Appearance, for example, must only be one of many criteria.

"It can include clean teeth, typing skills or a recreation-management degree, and they can be both objective and subjective," he explains, "So if a 300-pound lady comes along and says 'I was the best candidate, and you discriminated against my weight,' you can go back and say, 'No, we considered many criteria.'"

(Obesity, McIver notes, is on the cutting edge of labor law since the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—the EEOC—has taken the position that obesity is protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Obesity-related cases have yet to begin working their way up the court system.)

Keeping them

Of course, hiring is only the first hurdle in the human-resources obstacle course. The next phase, retaining employees, should begin before their first day, says JCC's Shenker.

People on a job for six months or less are 10 times more likely to quit than people working six months or longer, he notes. The best way to keep good employees is by providing clear expectations about their jobs. This includes orientation and training programs, which employers should create whether they hire five or 500 employees each year, he says. Orientations should cover oft-neglected basics, such as where to park, the location of bathrooms, and the purpose of both the job and the company. And these basics should get to the employee before they start.

Next, employees, both young and old, need a reason to stay in their job, Shenker adds, and this doesn't mean a good paycheck. In one survey, he notes, compensation ranked 11 on a list of the 10 reasons employees stay in a job. Their reasons for staying may include the chance to learn and grow, to forge strong social ties, and to feel they're making a difference.

Who Are All These Generations Working Together? And How Do They Work?

The Matures (also know as the Traditionals): Born between 1900 and 1945, they comprise about 75 million of the population. They work hard with a top-down need-to-know strategy like the military and demand a certain amount of respect based on their age and experience.

The Baby Boomers: Born between 1946 and 1964, the Me generation is 80 million strong. They still value independence, are not great joiners and feel they're owed a lot. They created the latch-key kid and changed the way the country views recreation.

Generation X: Born between 1965 and 1980, with about 46 million, they are self-reliant, look for balance in life and feel cynical about loyalty to employers.

The Millennials: Born between 1981 and 1999, all 76 million of them, they possess more technology skills than any other group and know how to play every angle to avoid consequences. They also know how to work an MP3 but not a rotary phone.

For more interesting reading on the Millennials and other generational issues, check out the Web site for the Center for Generational Studies,

Team building

Soak City's Rehnborg agrees, saying that his biggest misconception as a manager was that money was most important to employees. Instead, he found that his under-25 set wanted to be part of a team, to belong to something with a reputation for excellence. As a result, he created a strong team atmosphere and the opportunity to excel. All employees belong to teams, complete with their own flags, which are raised every day. The staff earns points for their teams through an array of ways, as each group competes against the others.

For his lifeguards, Rehnborg promotes the staff as an elite corps. Only 75 percent of those hired pass rigorous training, which ends with a graduation ceremony. Next, Rehnborg uses the Ellis and Associates certification program as a standard, holds weekly training sessions to hone skills, and offers both an in-house Olympics and a chance to compete in the regional and national lifeguard championships. (The Soak City team placed fourth last year.)

Problems, problems, problems

Next, employers must be ready to address problems, especially those unique to the Millennials. This means creating clear, written policies; discussing them when hiring; and sticking to them no matter what.

For example, many employers of Millennials complain about the youths' use of personal electronics on the job: cell phones, PDAs, MP3 players and pagers. Younger employees may frequently show up for work late, or not at all. And most frequently, managers report problems with parents interfering.

The only way to prevent such problems, those in the field report, is to create clear policies and stick with them no matter what. This means written policies prohibiting cell phones and other electronics at all times. This means clear consequences for tardiness. It means firing employees who don't live up to standards.

When it comes to disorganization and problems with schedules, rec supervisors also must understand that this group has let parents program and oversee personal schedules, so the teens may not yet have developed those skills. Miller suggests working with problem cases one-on-one, "coaching, rather than managing" to help them build these skills. She also reports that mentoring, especially with older, retired workers, seems to work well.

Empowering a disorganized group by asking them to work out a schedule has proven effective for Laguna Niguel's Dittmar as well. But when trouble occurs, parents lurk.

"I've released employees because they don't come to work on time and I get calls from their parents," Dittmar recalls. "I have to tell them this isn't high school, it's a job. You can't go to the principal. And it's not your job, Mom or Dad, it's theirs."

These overly concerned adults can cause additional strife if they use the facility where their child works, Wendover says. To solve this dilemma, he suggests explaining to both employee and parent that, because of privacy laws, you cannot discuss their job with parents and cannot permit parents calling.

"You may lose a few kids along the way, but they may be the ones who would have given you the most grief," he says.

A piercing issue

One area where employers might agree with parents: Appearance issues create strife with Millennials. And body piercings represent the front line of conflict. But according to McIver, employers possess every right to prohibit jewelry in unusual places.

"Employers are allowed to set standards, and part of that subset is grooming," McIver says. "These standards can vary from one group to another, so that a health club can set one grooming code for the receptionists, one for the locker-room attendants and one for the trainers. The only glitch is that you have to enforce these uniformly between women and men."

Again, written policies, clearly explained, are tantamount to avoiding conflicts—and lawsuits.

Body piercings are an especially hot topic in the aquatics and fitness industries where infection and the risks of avulsion, or skin tears, can pose a hazard. This led the New England Aquatics Network to create a position statement on Life Guards and Body Jewelry last year, says Robin Benton, a founding member and executive officer of the group. In it, the group states, "Navel, nipple, eyebrow and tongue piercings are never appropriate for lifeguards on duty." It also advises members to beware prospective guards' claim that their skin décor cannot be removed: simply untrue. It notes that many-holed staff can use plastic retainers, or "invisible jewelry," which prevent holes from closing. They protrude on only one end, making it easier to prevent avulsions.

Yet positions within the industry vary. Lifeguards at Soak City cannot wear any form of body piercing, Rehnborg says, in keeping with parent Knott's Farm's stringent appearance code. But 30 miles down Int. Hwy. 5, Laguna Niguel has no prohibitions.

"This is Southern California, and these kids have tattoos and body piercings," she says. "I'm not going to turn away an employee who wants a job, has good skills and is going to show up on time just because he has an eyebrow pierce." She notes that she's never witnessed an avulsion or other incident with a piercing with her guard staff of 25.

Similarly, Gold's Gym national policy allows all employees to wear jewelry as long as it is "minimal and tasteful," but allows club general managers to set each gym's own standards on body piercings and tattoos, according to Gold's Berthay.

In general, tattoos, seem to have gained greater acceptance than piercings. Several managers noted that body art has become popular even with Baby Boomers and seems particularly prevalent in aquatics: Elite swimmers frequently sport a discreet dolphin or sea turtle even in the seemingly conservative Midwest.

Ironically, these appearance issues tend to stick in the management craws of Baby Boomers more than older workers. In fact, one of the strongest positives associated with the newest work generation is its ability to mesh with older employees.

A Piercing Dichotomy

Are pierced ears a chick thing? Courts have consistently upheld employers' right to prevent men from wearing earrings while allowing them for women, according to labor lawyer Tex McIver.

Do you think this is fair? Do you let your male staff wear earrings? What other hot topics of employee conduct have you encountered? Let us know at

"They're the grandpa you can talk to when you hate your parents," Wendover reasons. Older and younger workers share parallel values, and mature workers seem to enjoy the silliness of the youngest group, while their very presence tempers it somewhat, Dittmar adds, and both groups emphasize the social aspect of work.

But that social side of work can get out of hand with Millennials, notes lawyer McIver. With the explosion of sexual harassment litigation, he has been counseling recreation and fitness industry clients to use a strong preventive tool: anti-fraternization policies that prohibit dating between employees and with customers.

"In a health club or a pool, with young, fit people, it can be a highly charged atmosphere," he says. "With a no-dating policy you can't be left with the excuse that somebody thought she was interested." Gold's Gym enforces a nonfraternization policy for those reasons. It also was put in place to avoid conflicts that could arise from complaints of favoritism, along with problems in supervision or security, Berthay says.

As with any employee policies, uniform enforcement and constant vigilance will make it work, no matter the age group.

"You have basic principles on how to deal with people consistently, and it applies regardless of age," Shenker says.

© Copyright 2020 Recreation Management. All rights reserved.