“OK Boomer!” Is it Harassment?

For the last few years, we’ve been inundated by articles and conference speakers talking about “Generational Differences in the workplace”. A minority of the HR profession (me included, for example in this post I wrote over 6 years ago) pointed out that this was meaningless stereotyping and used the hashtag #GenerationBlah to mock those who persisted in promoting themselves and their products on the back of ‘why Millennials need different recruitment solutions’.

Just so we are all clear, there is no reliable evidence of ‘generational differences’, as this piece of research shows.

It did seem that this fad was dying away, overtaken by other flavours of the month. But it’s burst back into life with the current prevalence of the phrase “OK Boomer” as a generalised insult for older people – so much so that it’s now even entered political debate.

Why’s this an issue for employers? Well, depending on the context, it could constitute harassment under the Equality Act.

Harassment is defined as one person (say a young employee) engaging in unwanted conduct related to a protected characteristic of an another person (say an older employee) which has the effect of violating the second person’s dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.

While most employers would be aware that race, sex, disability or religious belief are protected characteristics, it’s worth remembering that age is too.

Whether someone is harassed depends on their perception, not the intention of the person making the comment (so “I only meant it as a joke” is not a defence). If an employee complains, you as an employer need to investigate it and consider what has been said, the context it was being said and any other circumstances. Failure to do so leaves your organisation potentially liable.

Remember too that it works both ways – so an older worker calling a younger one a “snowflake” could equally be harassment in similar circumstances.

With a bit of luck, the “OK Boomer” trend could soon become as dated as 1960s hippies calling older people “squares”. But until then, watch out for it in the workplace!

This piece was inspired by a US article called “Okay, Boomer, in the workplace could get you fired” by Suzanne Lucas who tweets as @RealEvilHRLady. It’s an interesting read especially if you want to compare UK and US employment laws!

Bart

I’m incredibly bored of the word “Millennial”

Since Christmas, my social media timeline has been filled with articles and blogs about “Why Managers are scared to hire Millennials” “What Millennials want from the workplace” “How Millennials are disrupting traditional HR practices” and even “A Millennial Explains what Millennials are all about”.

What are these strange creatures who are causing so much angst? Apparently they live their innermost lives on the internet, exposing their most private thoughts and activities for millions to share. They get excited by sitcoms about people sharing flats, they don’t know what a video recorder is and they talk in emojis and strange slang. Worse still, when it comes to work, they demand to be CEO on day 1, want slides in work and have no respect for existing ways of doing things, despite the fact they have no experience. And they expect the companies they work for to be ethical despite having no loyalty to their employer and changing jobs every couple of months. And – here’s the really sinister part – they were all born in 1990 or later.

Now some of you reading this may think “hang on, aren’t these just young people? Behaving in the way young people have done for generations? Having unrealistic expectations and being idealistic? Liking new technology and having their own cultural reference points?” But that would be complacent and, if I may say so, dangerous thinking.

Millennials are different. There’s been extensive research to say so. Conferences are devoted to the subject. Scholarly articles have been published. HR professionals talk of little else. So it must be true.

Forget the war for talent. Forget the metrics. Forget all that mindfulness stuff. This is the one area you must concentrate on if you want to be on trend with current HR thinking.

Corrections and Clarifications

It has been drawn to the author’s attention that

  1. Millennials may have been born in 1985 or later, or perhaps 1980 or later, or – well just pick a date that suits you.
  2. There has not in fact been extensive research. Lots of companies selling products have produced nebulous statistics which are then re-quoted as facts
  3. While a few scholarly articles have been produced, most are based on small samples of US students and the authors themselves warn against generalising from the findings.