Companies & Industries

Cutting Mature Workers Widens the Wisdom Deficit


Companies that cut seasoned employees without considering the wisdom and knowledge lost are making an expensive, if not disastrous, mistake, says Alaina Love

In the deluge of head count slashing and budget cuts, companies may be making critical mistakes in shedding a vital asset: mature workers. The current economic climate is prompting organizations to reexamine priorities and jobs. In the talent hemorrhage pouring from the arteries of U.S. companies are employees who hold significant institutional wisdom and knowledge—the kind that cannot be easily replaced.

Over the last several weeks, I have heard story after story about long-term employees losing their jobs. Some were quickly replaced through outsourcing; others left gaping organizational holes that younger counterparts struggled to fill.

Chris is one of these displaced workers. After 30 years with a large telecom company, he had held on through a series of downsizings until one day it was his turn to be let go. After packing up the contents of his desk and three decades of memories, Chris took a job with a consulting firm that later won a contract with his former employer. Chris found himself working for the telecom firm again—but for far less pay, with a much bigger workload, and in a cultural environment that makes him feel like just another number.

He's now working with young, newly hired employees who have a fraction of his expertise, experience, and understanding of the company's history. There is no mechanism in place for a transfer of that knowledge. Imagine the impact on the company's business, especially in this economy, if those younger workers were to learn what Chris has mastered over the last 30 years. What if forward-thinking leaders inside the company created the kind of cultural environment where teams of workers willingly shared knowledge, successes, failures, and lessons learned? Consider the impact of that type of knowledge transfer on customers—and ultimately, the bottom line.

How to make the most of experience

In our research with seasoned workers, we have found many employees age 50 and older with a strong drive to make continued contributions in their field. Most of the individuals we've interviewed have a firm sense of who they are, what their purpose is, and how they can make a difference. Better yet, many are willing to share their knowledge and to help develop others. This is a huge benefit to organizations, especially in a time where employee-development budgets are shrinking. To make the most of experienced workers, I offer these recommendations to corporate leaders:

1. Make strategic staff reductions that preserve the core business while you invest in the future.

Today's stark economic reality is requiring many organizations, especially those that have not carefully managed head count, to trim their workforce. This is an action that no good leader takes lightly. When considering cutbacks, be sure to carefully examine not just positions but also individuals' backgrounds so that the organization's most valued wisdom doesn't wind up walking out the door. It is essential to focus on future strategic growth areas as well as the core business so the talent you need for both is not lost in a tide of downsizing.

2. Rethink how you train leaders.

Teach them how to develop and support workers of all generations. If the Gen Xer in charge isn't figuring out how to learn the most from both Baby Boomers and Millennials, the business is suffering.

3. Create a "Corporate Wisdom Team" made up of contributors to the organization that have helped guide the business over time through multiple challenges and changes.

These are the employees whose wisdom cannot be replaced. They should be part of the team that guides the development of the company's next generation of leaders.

4. Solve the problem of organizational wisdom transfer.

epochal later achievers

Baby boomers are part of a diverse national workforce, operating in an even more diverse global business environment. In the context of this economy, American companies need to work as a team to maintain and grow the U.S.-based knowledge necessary to compete with businesses in other parts of the world, such as China and Japan. These ancient cultures have learned how to harness wisdom and their successful companies have embedded it as a cornerstone of their organizations.

Recent reader mail for this column suggests a growing perception and concern that the value many employers place on older workers is decreasing. To such organizations, I offer the following historic facts for consideration:

At age 50 the philosopher Plotinus began writing his ideas, later published as The Enneads.

When John Locke was 54, he began publishing a lifetime of studies, including his essay, Concerning Human Understanding.

Samuel Adams, 50 years old, orchestrated the Boston Tea Party.

Henry Jay Heimlich at age 54 developed an emergency maneuver that has saved millions of choking victims.

Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring at age 55 and became an early voice for environmental protection.

At age 55 painter Pablo Picasso completed his masterpiece, Guernica.

Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross at age 59.

Albert Einstein at the age of 59 achieved major advancements in his general theory of relativity.

Ludwig von Beethoven completed his Ninth Symphony at age 53.

Benjamin Franklin at age 70 helped draft the Declaration of Independence.

We have an even more recent example of the power that the knowledge and wisdom of an older worker had on an organization's success. Like many of you, I was riveted on Jan. 15 by the footage of 58-year-old Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger successfully landing USAir flight 1549 on the Hudson River, saving the lives of all 155 people on board. When remarking on the accomplishment in a recent interview, Sullenberger commented that he felt his "entire career" had prepared him for that moment. Had Sullenberger not been at the controls of the aircraft that day, the impact on passengers, their families, and USAir's future might have been disastrous.

Alaina Love is a consultant, writer, speaker, and the president of Purpose Linked Consulting, a leadership and organization development firm. Prior to founding PLC, Love spent more than twelve years at Merck Co., Inc. where she was executive director of human resources (worldwide), a research scientist and clinical researcher. Love now provides a broad range of leadership, team and organization development services to clients around the world, including The Passion Profiler™, a comprehensive tool used by PLC to assess individuals' work-related passions. She is co-author of the soon-to-be-published McGraw-Hill book, The Purpose Linked Organization: How Passionate Leaders Inspire Winning Teams and Great Results. The book identifies and explores the impact of the 'passion archetypes' of great leaders, provides a process for leaders to maximize the individual passions on their teams, and offers free access to the Passion Profiler™ online tool, where readers can discover their own passions and how to apply them to their roles at work.

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