battle between old employees and new

A reader writes:

The company I work for as the HR manager first of all is a small, family-run business and has employees who’ve been with us since day 1 (25 years ago) and have been loyal and worked long and hard to help us get to where we’re at today. The problem is times and attitudes have changed since then – but they haven’t. There’s a serious conflict of old versus new – and behaviors that may have been overlooked 20-odd years ago are proving to be unacceptable but hard to break now. As a result, there’s a serious rift in the office between “us” and “them,” the “old” versus the “young/new.”

These older individuals constantly butt heads with the newer ones and it has gotten personal on several occasions. Ultimately, it ends up adversely affecting the customer, which is of course a huge concern for management. The relationship that management has with these older persons is also a personal as well as professional one so it makes the situation even more delicate. The newer ones have genuinely tried to make amends but to no avail, and it’s breeding hostility, resentment and all round bad faith and mistrust.

Management is at its wits end. We’ve spoken with both sides on several occasions. We’ve tried to impress upon the older staff that they should take the lead in setting things right (this hasn’t happened). The younger decision-makers (like myself and my husband) are really of the opinion that we’d rather get rid of 2 people than lose 6 – but upper management feels very uneasy about letting these people go because of their long-standing relationship.

What’s the next step now?

When I first received this letter, I couldn’t tell whether either side had an actual performance problem, or whether it was just a case of the two sides not getting along with each other. I wrote back and asked, and the letter-writer responded that the older side has an attitude problem that often affects performance since both sides are dependent on each other for any given job.

So. Why is management at wit’s end? Management has authority to change things; it’s just choosing not to use it.

Your management is uneasy about letting long-term employees go. And they should be uneasy, based on the way they’ve handled this so far. Up until now, it sounds like you’ve tried to persuade the problem employees that they must change, trying to coax them into it — instead of set clear, non-negotiable standards and setting clear consequences for not following those standards. So far, your employees don’t believe your demands have any teeth, because by allowing the behaviors to continue after multiple conversations, you’ve signaled that you’re not willing to enforce those rules. It wouldn’t be fair to fire them without having explicitly told them that was a possibility.

Instead, someone (you or whoever in the organization has the authority to do it) needs to sit down with the problem employees (individually, not as a group) and tell them clearly what must change and what the consequences will be for not changing. Give specifics about what you need them to do differently, and explain that their jobs will be in jeopardy if they don’t meet that bar. For instance: “We’ve talked about this in the past and we haven’t seen the changes we need. It’s now at the point where I need to tell you that if we don’t see significant, immediate improvement in this area, we would have to let you go. You’ve been a good employee and I hope you will be here for many more years, but that won’t happen if we don’t get on the same page about this.”

If they argue with you, nicely explain that this isn’t their decision to make, and that if they’re not able to work happily under those conditions, this may not be the right job for them. See this post for some ideas on this.

By the way, if your upper management won’t agree to this — if they won’t agree to set and enforce consequences — then they’re choosing to live with the problem. If so, at that point, you should all stop being all wit’s end because a deliberate decision will have been made to accept the behavior. And for all I know, maybe that’s a reasonable decision; maybe the problem is annoying but not bad enough to warrant firing. Plenty of problems fit that category. (And maybe you want less serious consequences instead, like telling them it will affect future performance evaluations and raises.) But either way, you all need to get on the same page about it: Either there are serious consequences or there aren’t.

Good luck!

{ 5 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    It’s never about what it’s about; it’s always about something else.

    The OP says “The problem is times and attitudes have changed since then – but they haven’t.”

    So- they haven’t changed from being loyal and hard-working? This is good.

    Ways of delivering customer service change, the goods and services we offer change, but a passion for satisfying the customer doesn’t change. The times are irrelevant.

    What you are dealing with is fear.

    Use that one-on-one conversation to find out what he or she fears. It most likely is the feeling of being left behind by new technology and not being valued for what they do know and can still contribute, or it may be something else. Listen. Find out.

    If it’s technology, offer chances to upgrade skills- ‘we value you and want to invest in your future with the company’ approach.

    “The newer ones have genuinely tried to make amends but to no avail, and it’s breeding hostility, resentment and all round bad faith and mistrust.”

    If the attempts to make amends are breeding hostility and mistrust, perhaps they’ve been viewed by the other side as patronizing and insincere, rather than the olive branch that they are. Listen. Find out.

    The end result of your efforts will either be a long-term employee eventually retiring full of years and honours, with the cards, the cake, the funny speeches-


    a bitter, resentful long-time employee cleaning out their desk and slinking out ‘after all I’ve done for this company!’

    Delicate? Whoo boy, you said it.

    But a group of older and younger employees who respects what each other offers and focuses on the customer will make way more money for the company than a group of us and them hissing it out in the lunch room.

    Lois Gory

  2. Just another HR lady...*

    Quite a few issues in this situation, just some food for thought from someone who has merged companies and organizational cultures more times than I wish to count.

    1) Have you truly defined what the culture of your company is intended to be? It sounds like there is culture clash going on. The “older” employees are trying to continue on in the old ways, and the “newer” employees are obviously trying to forge a new culture. Has anyone told either of these groups what they should be heading towards? You should do some thinking around exactly what the company wants the culture to be, clarify this with your management team, and start working on a communications/change management plan. Change is difficult, but trying to change someone’s behavior without telling them what you want them to do is impossible.

    2) I’m assuming that you’re one of the “newer” and therefore are trying to bring something new to the table. Is this what you were brought in to do? Or, perhaps the “older” ones are simply continuing on with the culture the owners created and want to maintain?

    3)The management has a personal relationship with the “older” employees and you say that this is causing some issues around forcing the “older” people to change. Perhaps the true issue is that management is not willing to change or that they don’t see the need for change?

    4) Communicate, communicate, communicate, and then communicate some more. What is the new culture, why are we going down this path, what are the benefits, what is everyone going to have to do to get there, take suggestions, use some of the suggestions (lol), be constantly visible and supportive of the new culture, etc.

    You will always have the few who resist change to the bitter end, and those people will never change their minds no matter what you do. The focus for you should be on the other 99% of the people who are accepting the change or who are truly on the fence, and just need you to lead them to the other side.

    Time is a funny thing, you will find if you work WITH people on change management, time will take care of the rest.

  3. HR Wench*

    There is no such thing as an attitude problem. There IS such thing as problem behaviors. Focus on what is an isn’t acceptable behavior; define it, communicate it and discipline accordingly. In situations where there hasn’t been discipline for a long time, sometimes it takes a person being made “example of” in order to get everyone to toe the line.

  4. Rebecca*

    I agree with HR Wench — there needs to be a clear line in the sand and a clear (and actually enforced) penalty for crossing it.

    Tell the older kids that they’re still special and you still love them, but they can’t keep hitting their little brothers and sisters, even if they think they have a good reason for it.

  5. Sayya26*

    Thanks for the quick response! Also, thanks to the others for leaving your insightful comments. I’m referring this to the relevant people and hopefully it will help!

    I agree that behaviors and culture need to be defined and communicated clearly and that management needs to make clear the consequences of unacceptable behavior and act on them.

    Thanks again.

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