Properly Handling of the “Seasoned” Employee /07-16-2014

There is one truth that every contractor realizes today: Every employee in the company (including the owner) is getting older!  Not much surprise here.  Yet, as the average age of our workers creeps up each year, we also are recognizing a few new developments, including:

  • Some of the experienced workers are struggling a bit physically
  • The more experienced employee might not offer help or advice to the younger employee
  • A few of the younger employees are teasing your oldest field worker by calling him “pops” or “gramps”
  • The seasoned veteran, who used to love the challenge of higher production goals, is quite content to “let’s just get done what we can”

If the national statistics are anywhere close to accurate, it’s estimated that some 30% or more of the current workers will be retired or are moving toward retirement.  What makes this number so alarming is that there is a higher number of soon-to-be-retired employees than at any other time in the history of “work USA.”

Most contractors and leaders will admit that handling their “seasoned” employees can require a bit more “kid glove” treatment.  As rough and tough as the older workers might have been at one time, those same workers can be overly sensitive when others comment on their slowing down, their inability to sustain high levels of production or other declines.  It’s not that they don’t recognize that about themselves, but they hate others pointing it out.

Suddenly, it is the more seasoned construction veteran that is now requiring increasing amounts of “tender loving care.”  However, such TLC provided by the contractor must be carefully and strategically applied or you risk having the older workers become hard to get along with and even harder to lead.

So, if you have some seasoned employees working for you, consider your handling of them and look to put the following techniques into place.

  1. Involve the Seasoned Employee in Planning & Problem Solving. Not every seasoned worker is a genius.  Some might never have risen to anything more in your organization than a very good front line worker who simply took on and executed daily job duties.  But some of your more experienced workers developed into very good craftsman and, more importantly, became wise decision makers and problem solvers.  So use them in this area more often and reap the benefits of 20, 30, even 40 years or more of experience.
  2. Engage Seasoned Workers in Training & Development. While not every seasoned worker is trainer material, some are and those should be engaged in active training and development of other workers.  While many contractors tell me they are doing this, most of this effort is actually just the contractor asking the veteran to “look out” for the younger work, “teach them what you know.”  Such lackadaisical comments will yield much less than expected and needed.  Contractors need to formally engage the seasoned worker: Give him specific directions to work with one or two of the less experienced workers.  This effort then must be formally arranged with the contractor fully knowing that productivity might take a little hit during the exercise.
  3. Contractors Need to Demonstrate Respect for the Seasoned Worker. This doesn’t mean to patronize the older worker, just that you need to address, confront and appreciate the older worker like any other worker.  This includes not embarrassing the older worker in front of the other workers when he’s made a mistake or forgotten some effort.  It means not confronting the seasoned worker in public.  These are good and wise techniques to use with any worker, no matter the age, but it especially applies to dealing with the older workers.
  4. Conduct an Objective Evaluation of Seasoned Workers & Share Results with Them. The truth can hurt if you have a seasoned worker whose physical performance is dropping off.  However, not sharing that honestly with the veteran employee can mean more embarrassment in the field if he can’t keep up with the rest of the team.  Make an honest appraisal of the veteran’s skills and meet privately with him to discuss it.  This discussion should include addressing those areas that he struggles with and what adjustments might need to be made to allow him to continue to be productive.  Again, this is not always a pleasant conversation and some of your older workers might, in fact, threaten to quit or to accuse you of not valuing their services any longer.  You must assure them that you need their experience and knowledge but that you must find some new areas for them to contribute if they cannot perform as needed.
  5. If Needed, Realign the Seasoned Employee to a Position of Greater Contribution. For some contractors the “realignment” might be as simple as giving them fewer of the physically demanding tasks.  It might involve moving the worker to more of a personal coach and trainer of other workers.  For still others, it may be placing them on another crew that performs work that doesn’t require the same physical skills, strength or coordination as their previous job function.  Keep the older worker aware of your determination to help him be a contributor, one who can still make a positive difference in the success of the company.
  6. If Response to Re-Alignment is Negative… Coach & Counsel! Most first responses from your older workers to your realignment ideas will be negative.  This isn’t hardheadedness as much as it is pride.  Older workers who have lost a step or two know that their skills are slowly diminishing; they just hate to be confronted with this reality.  When their first response is negative, do not overreact.  Rather, spend a few extra minutes coaching them on why they are needed in working at another position or on another crew.  If they persist to resist such coaching – or worse, begin to show some signs of physical resistance to the leadership before them, then you will need to bring them into your office for a private and serious counseling session.  It is here that you will need to spell out very clearly what their options are in terms of remaining with your company.  This is tough to do, especially when the worker has been with the company for a long time.  Yet, some of the hardest cases will melt when the owner gently explains what “reality” is and how they (the seasoned employee) can adapt to the needs of the company.
  7. Practice Tough Love…But Make it “Love.” I have a good client north of the U.S.-Canada border who has developed an acronym, CETA.  This stands for Care Enough to Act and I love it.  It’s this contractor’s term for his effort to remodel and update a home for a family in need.  I think this term, CETA, could also represent any contractor’s effort to demonstrate a kinder, gentler and loving presence when interacting with an older worker who is struggling with his inability to do things that he used to do.  More than any other technique presented thus far, practicing tough love – and being sure to “love” the employee – can have far greater positive results for the employee and the company.

Not all aging workers will lose their motor skills or memory – at least at the same time.  I regularly observe field workers still going strong until they are in their early-to-mid sixties…some even touching seventy.  While superintendents, project managers, estimators, salespeople etc., might work into their late sixties and well into their seventies, not all will want to continue to work much past the traditional “65.”

As we get older in the U.S. we are also healthier and living longer.  I predict that we will see a national retirement age bumped up slightly to perhaps 67.5 years of age, and 70 years of age would not be out of question.   Some other industries are already experiencing such retirement age being raised.

Looking ahead, our aging workforce will continue to age.  As contractors we must prepare for changes and adjustments in our benefit packages, the manner in which we “man our crews,” and what responsibilities we place on to our workers.

This article was not intended to defend that every worker who is 55 and older will need to be “put out to pasture.”  If that were the case, then yours truly would be sent to his own pasture.  No, this article’s intention was to honestly and gently address a reality that all contractors have in common.  Take the insights shared here and put them to good use.  Your “graying” workers may just surprise you and give you even better performance and loyalty than ever!

Here’s to those who are, like fine wine, aging with distinction and bolder taste!

Brad Humphrey  

© 2014 Brad Humphrey, Pinnacle Development Group/The Contractor’s Best Friend™