Why generation labels are dangerous to your business

Thinking of changing your recruitment strategy to target generation Y? Adjusting your culture to accommodate to generation Z? Please, don’t. Generation labels have no basis in science and using them can even be harmful for your organization.

Generation X, Generation Y, Generation Z.
The Who knows all about generation stereotyping.

The use of horoscopes

In our HR team, it’s been a fun start of the day for years now. One of my colleagues takes the newspaper and reads the rest of the team their horoscope for the day. This is especially fun when one of the horoscopes describes that you might quarrel with one of your colleagues today. After a few jokes, it’s business as usual and we forget what it was the stars wanted to tell us.

Very few organizations base their recruitment strategy on horoscopes. After all, what does it matter which month your candidate was born in? However, when we talk about what year a candidate was born in, this suddenly seems to matter a great deal. Some organizations base their entire recruitment strategy on targeting generation X, Y or Z.

I find that fascinating. When you think about it, what’s the real difference between horoscopes and generation labels?

Generation X, Y or Z?

Whereas most people don’t take horoscopes seriously, generation labels are often referred to in popular science. There are loads of books on generations X, Y and Z. There are scores of consultancy firms that are more than willing to explain at full length how to change your organization in order to recruit, manage or motivate a certain generation.

Apparently, I’m part of generation X. Or Y, depending on which book you read. According to theory, I’m balancing between Generation’s X’s ‘work hard, play hard’ motto, and generation Y’s tendency to go job hopping. Luckily I limit my internet usage, otherwise I would have also qualified for generation Z, whose motto is ‘always online’. Then I would really have an identity crisis.

This is exactly the problem with generation labels. Each generation’s motto can just as easily be applied to any other generation. There are tons of young people who enjoy hard work, and many retirees who spends hours a day on their iPads.

But what about all that scientific research? Doesn’t that prove there’s some sense in analyzing generations? Well, nope.

This is what science says about generation labels

Ok, sit back. Here’s a brief summary of the science behind generation labels.

Since the 19th century, generations have been the subject of research, especially in the field of sociology. In the beginning, there was much discussion on the use of characterizing various generations. It was Karl Mannheim (born in 1893) who first concluded that generation labels are an oversimplification of reality, and that they can be quite misleading. When you’re focusing too much on birth year when explaining the behavior of a certain social group, you’re likely to spend not enough time on the critical investigation of other, more important factors.

In the 20th century, sociologist Norman Ryder developed the ‘cohort’ as a method to study groups of people. He researched groups who are born around the same time and grew up in similar circumstances. In this research, he took into account all kinds of other factors, such as background, gender, job and location. Time and again, his research showed that all these factors had a huge influence on someone’s social behavior. Someone’s birth year, however, proved to have little to no influence. Since then, lots of similar research has been done into generation labels, and all research proves Ryder’s conclusion was right.

Why can generation labels be dangerous?

Back to the 21th century. Of course there are developments that influence certain generations, and you should not ignore those. You should keep up with what’s new, and use any innovations you think might help you reach your target audience. But the notion that these developments result into generations that are entirely different form the previous ones, is misleading. Generations don’t differ that much. In fact, looking at your target audience through a ‘generation lens’ might even be harmful to your organization.

If you focus too much on generation thinking, you risk ignoring a big part of your target audience. Or worse: you might ruin your organizational culture by trying to cater to the latest generation’s needs.

An example. Say you want to attract young employees, who are just out of college. You decide to leave your 70s office building and move to the city center. You switch to flexible workplaces, start working in agile teams and provide free public transport passes for everyone. You even hire a barista to brew soy skinny lattes. How will your current employees react when they hear they can no longer drive their car to work? When they no longer have any fixed place for their kids’ pictures? They’ll complain. Maybe they’ll even start looking for another job. This will negatively influence the work atmosphere, which will have an negative effect on the employees you just hired. Instead of the hip and inspiring organization they hoped to join, they see disgruntled employees complaining in the hallways.

Of course you won’t change your organization as drastically as this. But keep in mind that even small organizational changes can have a huge effect on your current employees and on your company culture.

Base your policy on horoscopes?

I admit, analyzing generation labels may be slightly more insightful than reading horoscopes. But only slightly. Your own company culture should always the basis of your recruitment policy. You’ll find you’ll attract people from all kinds of generations. Sure, you should use the channels that best fit your target audience, be it newspaper ads or Instagram posts. But the core of your story should remain the same.

And horoscopes? Well, they might be more useful than you think. I can recommend everyone to start your day by reading horoscopes to your team members. For us, it’s a fun start of the day. Which may be worth more than all generation labels put together.

The good, the bad, and bureaucracy

Bureaucracy! This word is often used in frustration. Sometimes the word seems to be worse than any of the cuss words we use. But what is bureaucracy? And can we turn it in to something good for an HR department?

What is bureaucracy?

The word bureaucracy is commonly used to describe the strict way a governmental institution works in order to answer questions or solve issues. Another word typically associated with this situation is red tapeThere are plenty of comic sketches illustrating the bad and inefficient sides of bureaucracy; the best one being a famous Dutch commercial about a girl that lost her purple plastic crocodile at a swimming pool and wants to get it back. Her mom gets frustrated with forms and procedures even though the crocodile is in plain sight. Equally funny but slightly less on the subject of bureaucracy are the English sketches containing the phrase “Computer says no” by Little Britain.We can all think of a situation like this and remember the associated anger and disbelief. Believe it or not, bureaucracy started out as something good. In order to find out what went wrong we need to go back in time. (If you don’t like a history lesson, skip to “Bureaucracy and HR” below)

Who invented such an ugly thing!?!

While no-one can really claim to have invented bureaucracy, a German sociologist named Max Weber was one of the first to describe it in a scientific way. And believe it or not; he described it as an efficient form of organization…….. OK, when you are done laughing let’s actually delve into Max’s ideas instead of simply misquoting one of the great thinkers of his time.

Back then, things were changing from a classic farm-village society into a a more industrial-city orientated society. Instead of dealing with your friendly neighbors (which were more often than not related as well), you come to a city full of people you have never met and not knowing how to arrange things. In order to deal with the influx of new citizens in an efficient way, the local administrations began to standardize processes. This had the added benefit of treating everyone the same, preventing clientelism.

Max- sociologist and all round smart guy with trendy beard

Karl Emil Maximilian (Max) Weber was one of the great thinkers of this time and saw the first forms of bureaucracy as an efficient form of organization with a well-defined line of authority. It had clear rules and regulations which were strictly followed. In an ideal world, this meant that regular governmental employees could help anyone at their desk, simply following the rules which would ensure a fair treatment to everyone. But Weber, being a smart guy, also saw the danger of bureaucracy which he called the iron cage.  To keep things short, he predicted that bureaucracy would become what we believe it to be now, if people forgot that it is simply a tool to help people instead of a dogma of efficiency which should be followed no matter what.

Bureaucracy and HR

With the history lesson done, it’s time to look at what HR can learn from Max and his bureaucracy. In HR, we have seen an increase in the amount of technology we use to provide service to our clients (your colleagues 😉 ). Some of you know it as e-HRM, but if we look in a broader spectrum it is called service management. HR teams use software to provide information to their colleagues, which enables them to ask questions about their paychecks or inform us of changes in their personal situation. For simple questions and requests, bureaucracy can help to bring standardized processes and help colleagues in a fast and efficient way. However, and this is where we can truly learn from Weber’s teachings, we should never see the standardized process as something which can not be changed or made an exception on!

As an HR department, it is your duty to provide a great service to your colleagues, so they can focus on their own job without worrying about HR-side-stuff. Sometimes, this means you provide a standard answer or service to a simple question, but other times you should recognize that the question does not fit in your standardized process. Instead of forcing the question into one of the standard solutions, try to think of your colleague behind the question and how you can best help him or her. Making exceptions and providing bespoke solutions should be part of your HR arsenal in order to help your colleagues enjoy their work and function better.

My simple advise for a great HR service solution

Looking at the positive sides of bureaucracy, and taking the dangers into account, we can come up with two basic tips:

  • Provide your colleagues with information so they can find their own answers if they wish to. Obviously you do this digitally in this day and age, through a nice service portal. People are used to search for their own answers (thank you Google!) so help them find the information. As an added bonus, this will save you a lot of time and prevent the less challenging work of answering these basic questions.
  • With the time you saved above, you make sure you provide bespoke solutions for the situations which require your HR view. Truly help your colleagues with their questions, problems and requests instead of trying to answer questions as quickly as possible. Try to search for the question behind the question asked, and look for opportunities to improve your HR services where possible.

With these simple tips you can use the good parts of bureaucracy to save time and provide efficient service, while keeping an eye on the dangers of the red-taped-iron-cage. And maybe, just maybe, we will use the word bureaucracy in a more positive (or at least neutral) way in the future.

Please share your advise on great HR services if you have any. If not, I am sure you can share horrible examples of bureaucracy that will help us remember how we should not practice our work as HR professional.

How making your employees happy can make you rich

I won’t be writing much in this article, but there is a lot of wisdom to be found here. Wisdom by one of the most famous entrepreneurs in South America. His name is Ricardo Semler and he has inspiring views on how to run a business. And its not just fancy words either; his ideas on HR have made his companies and organizations very successful and made him very rich in the process.

Who is Ricardo Sempler?

Tegenlicht, a Dutch documentary program by the VPRO, had the unique opportunity to interview Ricardo Semler and visit his extraordinary house and companies. In the video, Ricardo Semler explains how being a young rock musician inspired him to run a machinery company in Brazil in a revolutionary way. He gives his employees complete freedom and responsibility, and they repay him by making the company very successful while enjoying their job. I see a lot of resemblance to our own company values at TOPdesk, where freedom and responsibility are 2 of the 3 company values, trust being the third. Those company values are part of our success as well.

Even though the subtitles and some of the voice-overs are in Dutch, the video can be watched by English speaking people as well, since the interview parts of the program are in English. You can watch the documentary if you click on the image below:

Happy employees make you rich


If you want to see the full and uncut English interview, it has been posted by Tegenlicht on Youtube as well.


What do you think: Has Ricardo Semler been very lucky, or is there wisdom in his words which other companies and organization can adopt to become a success?

On Bonuses, Commissions and Motivation

Today I want to tackle a more sensitive subject: bonuses and commissions. The subject has intrigued me ever since I was asked to read some articles on how targets and commission work for my study in Sociology. As many others, I always thought a bonus motivates people and gets clear results, but the scientific articles I read showed a very different kind of truth. Over the years I have found more and more information on the subject and now I want to share a few of these sources with you.

The video at the top of this post is a must see for anyone interested in HR, motivation and/or commissions. But even if you don’t care about the way commissions work, it is still worth watching as it shows how people are motivated in a fun way.

Below are two links to articles which explain clearly how I personally feel about sales commissions. I won’t spend much words on summarizing the articles as they are well written and really worth reading.

The Sales Commission Dillemma

Why do we pay sales commissions?

How do we change the situation?

That’s how I think on commissions and motivation. The only thing I struggle with is the situation where an organization already has a commission system. Even though I believe that not having a commission system or bonus scheme is best for a company, I do not think it is always easy to get rid of a system once it is in place. Is it possible? Of course it is; but I think it is wise to look at your company and listen to what people want before you change anything in a sensitive subject like this.

I wrote this post to encourage people to take another look at the commission system and bonus scheme in their organization. Hopefully, somewhere in the future, we will all spend less time arguing about targets and commissions, and spend more time on actually being motivated and having a purpose.

Maybe we should put a commission on the amount of organizations one can convince to get rid of commissions? 😉

On Quotas and Tokenism – Why is Token called Token?

Token Tokenism

I saw something on the television today that inspired me to write a blog post. Despite the title and the picture, it wasn’t South Park that inspired me (even though that show can be quite inspirational as well). I saw a news item on ‘Eenvandaag‘ (Dutch news) about the new quota on handicapped employees the Dutch government has planned for 2015. This quota forces all middle to large companies to hire at least 5% of employees with some form of disability. If a company fails to reach the quota they will get fined. The news item briefly shows a few different views on whether it is good or bad to install such a quota.

Do quota’s work?

Let me get straight to the point: I don’t think that implementing a quota is the right way. I understand the (noble) idea that leads to the plan, but I think this won’t lead towards what we all actually want: True participation of everyone, despite their background, looks or physical abilities. During the segment I saw today, someone working at ‘De Normaalste Zaak‘, and someone working at ‘Shakingtree Interventions‘, explained why they think it is not a good idea to implement the quota. Their explanations made me think of my lessons in Sociology of Tokenism.

What is tokenism?

Tokenism has several definitions, but the one I am referring to is: “The practice of hiring or appointing a token number of people from underrepresented groups in order to deflect criticism or comply with affirmative action rules.” But what makes Tokenism a bad or dangerous thing? Forcing organizations to hire more people of underrepresented groups does mean that they will actually hire more people of these groups….. right?
While it might increase the actual numbers, it does not mean these people get the chances they want. Even worse, it can influence the people that already got inside organizations based on their talents in a bad way. This happened decades ago in the USA when universities received a quota on giving PhD positions to students from an African American ethnicity. Everyone in the academic world (and corporate world) knew of this quota, which lead to viewing all African American PhD students as just being there because of the quota. Now, for some of these students this might have been true, but for the unfortunate others who were actually hired based on their talents, it meant that they didn’t get the chances and recognition during their PhD that they deserved. Even worse, after successfully finishing their PhD this Tokenism stuck on them, and they had trouble getting hired in a Postdoc position or in the corporate world because people would still think they only got their PhD because of the quota. Besides many other problems influencing this complex case, sociological research showed that implementing a quota leads to an increased chance of seeing these people as a Token, which harmed the actual cause for which the quota was implemented: giving people equal opportunities. You can translate this bit of sociology towards other underrepresented groups like women in high management positions or people with handicaps in organizations.

How to improve the future

From that bit of sociology back to the actual quota and the fragment on TV that inspired me today. In the fragment you can also see a good initiative by Microsoft Nederland. They organized a think tank to discuss the matter: “Is it possible to get more handicapped people to participate in an organization without actually forcing the organization?” I am very curious what this think tanks will present somewhere in the next few weeks, because I think you will accomplish more if you stimulate something, than you would if you forced it instead. (This might actually be a subject for a future blog)

Do I think we could and should do more to give people with a handicap more/equal opportunities? Yes I do.
Do I think that implementing a quota is the answer to the problem? No I don’t.
Do I have the right answer? Unfortunately… I do not. I do however think a stimulation in some form will work better then forcing it upon organizations, and I am really curious what the think tank will come up with. If any of you have a good idea, please do share your view below!


Oh, and why is Token called Token? I hope the bit of sociology in the middle of this blog helped you somewhat. If you want to know more you should look for Token Black. It is one of the many examples in how South Park can be an inspiration or give you food for thought. Don’t forget to dive into the wondrous world of Sociology of Tokenism as well!