Managing a Changing Workforce

By Karen Dietrich, M.S.

A stock image of an older business man working with a younger female professional.

Law enforcement agencies encounter more challenges today than at any other time in recent history. In addition to the traditional crime-related issues that continue to plague communities, departments must address modern problems, such as terrorism, advances in weaponry, and increased drug usage.

Amid these concerns, police departments also face a changing workforce, with different age groups now serving side by side. While all bring strengths to the organization, each has special considerations that agencies must understand and address.1 Currently, another generation is increasing its presence in the law enforcement community.

Age Groups

Every generation, police departments face a transition. Today, for the first time in the history of the American workforce, four age groups now work together.2 These include traditionalists (born 1900–1945); baby boomers (born 1946–1964); Generation X (born 1965–1980); and millennials, or Generation Y (born 1981–2000).3


Employees in this generation have become less common in law enforcement. However, they still hold positions within agencies, often because of difficulty retiring in today’s economy.4

Major Karen Dietrich

Major Dietrich serves with the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Police Department.

In traditionalists’ early careers, companies and workers took care of each other. Both remained loyal, and personnel usually stayed with the same organization for long periods before retiring. Individuals gained recognition and promotions largely through tenure on the job.

Traditionalists focus on right and wrong, valuing the rules and their reason for existence. These employees believe that everyone should obey such imperatives or suffer the consequences. They hold strictly to their ways.5

Baby Boomers

Considered the workaholics of the groups, baby boomers left other concerns behind to work long, hard hours to feel successful. Their identify stems from what they do. These individuals started in the workforce when company loyalty still represented a predominant characteristic, but they also experienced layoffs and downsizing. Reduced jobs and greater competition caused them to develop a competitive edge and fight for positions.6

Generation X

Because of lack of parental involvement, Generation X comprised the first “latchkey kids” and became self-sufficient. These personnel want managers to tell them what to do and when and then let them complete tasks independently. They do not want supervisors hovering over them. Employees in this group believe in working hard while on the job, but also value work-life balance—time off and flexibility for family activities.7


People have referred to millennials as growing up protected by closely involved parents. Adults called them “special” and often rewarded them simply for their efforts. They represent the “wanted” children of the generations. As a result, these individuals have high self-esteem.8 “Striving for a high quality of life, wanting the best and thinking they deserve it, makes the millennials driven and ambitious with high expectations.”9


Members of each generation share common experiences during their formative years. These events help not only to forge bonds but also generate similar points of view. They shape attitudes on a large scale and create a group identity that influences individual behavior and value systems.10

Certainly, managing a workplace with diverse age groups involves a challenge itself because misunderstanding, frustration, and agitation can arise among personnel. Relating effectively to all types of employees represents one of today’s essential leadership skills.11

An important consideration in the modern police organization involves the different mind-set held by the millennials. They want to be seen, heard, and accommodated. Millennials seek the same learning opportunities as their cohorts and expect to climb the ladder of success—through transfers and promotions—quickly.12 Previous generations believed in serving their time and earning their way to becoming detectives or sergeants. They had no anticipation of moving to a specialty unit or receiving a promotion until they acquired years of experience.

This new age group desires and expects technology in the workplace. Millennials communicate largely through social media and software to make their lives easier and more efficient. Unlike other generations, these technology-savvy personnel have a wealth of information readily available in an instant.

They do not fear changing agencies at the start of their careers if they see something else they value. Commonly, millennials consider the “grass greener on the other side.” If they do not like what their employers offer, they instantly can search for a better option. Millennials often chase what makes them happy at the moment to achieve immediate gratification.13

Challenges for Leaders

Navigating Change

Although Generation X constitutes most of today’s workforce, millennials are quickly filling gaps. Such a shift of generations occurs regularly. This requires agencies to adjust their leadership strategies to ensure success. Managers need new skills and tactics to create motivation and retention within their organizations. They also must realize that employees rarely leave agencies—they leave supervisors.14

Modern police departments cannot ignore this transformation. When leaders refuse to admit the need for change and do not make a proactive attempt to better the workplace, it shows in their demeanor and attitude. How they feel dictates their behavior.15 This creates a negative work environment and leads to devastation in the organization.

Agencies need to analyze information before addressing situations through new policies. They must devise programs to help develop their personnel—the leaders of today and tomorrow. Each individual has different needs, and, although personnel need fair and equal treatment, a variety of leadership styles will help get the most out of every employee. By keeping an open mind and using effective communication skills, leaders can use persons’ differences to help boost creativity and productivity.

One style of leadership will not fit all situations; no “cookie cutter” solution exists. One popular model emphasizes the relationship between leaders and followers. Subordinates’ willingness to accomplish a certain task depends on the successful outcome of the mission. This method assumes no one best type leadership; the proper approach for each situation depends on the particular conditions present, including the readiness of the followers.16

“Certainly, managing a workplace with diverse age groups involves a challenge itself because misunderstanding, frustration, and agitation can arise among personnel.”

Embracing the Next Generation

Career Expectations

Leaders must understand what millennials want. These employees seek coaches, mentors, and career enhancement in the form of education.17

Organizations should consider reevaluating their career paths for police officers because millennials wish to progress rapidly. Many agencies have instituted a corporal rank, a tested position that leads to sergeant.18 Introducing such an extra step in the promotional process allows for more movement at a quicker pace without compromising experience and competency.

Communication Differences

Perhaps a perception that millennials hesitate to take direction stems from different relational patterns. “Our communication style is structured, yet they want freedom. We stress learning, they like experiencing. We react, they relate. We focus on the individual, while they are socially driven.”19

Persons from this generation seek managers who let them solve problems independently. They “desire an environment where the upper echelon remains open to change and receptive to the ideas of subordinates, regardless of rank or status. They want ownership in the organization.”20


Millennials do not believe in authority “just because”; rather, they challenge and ask “why.” These individuals want supervisors they can follow and believe in, who act according to their words and have integrity and know-how. They listen only to those they respect.21

Members of this generation become loyal to managers who earn it by giving them what they need—assistance in building skills and attaining goals. Titles are granted, but behavior wins respect.22

Supervisors must allow their employees to do things differently than they would.23 They enable personnel to act by giving, not hoarding, power.24 This further breeds loyalty.

Implementing Best Practices

Today’s managers can follow a set of principles in dealing with millennials in the workforce.25

  1. Lead them. This generation seeks leaders with honesty and integrity—role models. They want to respect, learn from, and dialogue with their supervisors.26
  2. Challenge them. Millennials desire opportunities and projects to learn from. This group wants to rise to the occasion and master difficult tasks. To this end, when leaders trust their employees, the organization benefits. Personnel tend to perform according to the image supervisors have of them.27
  3. Let them work with friends. This age group has become accustomed to working with friends in social groups. They have grown up in a structured team environment. Millennials have experienced success in this manner and believe that a unit can accomplish more and perform better than an individual.28 Agencies must foster and nurture their social groups.29
  4. Allow them to have fun. Persons of this generation want to enjoy their work environment, and they build friendships quickly. Leaders need to laugh at themselves, which helps disarm and create rapport with their employees. They appear more human with their imperfections on display. This helps create a fun workplace, which “frees people to be authentic and instantly diminishes the usual anxieties of dealing with higher-ups. It is hard to feel fearful, rigid, hostile, or inflexible when laughing. Humor opens channels of communication and increases trust.”30
  5. Respect them. These employees want to have their ideas listened to and respected, regardless of their tenure on the job. They grew up with parents who paid close attention to them, and they do not like to have their viewpoints ignored.31
  6. Give them flexibility. This generation often will not sacrifice a well-balanced life for a 60-hour workweek. Millennials value children and family activities, as well as their extracurricular interests.32

“An important consideration in the modern police organization involves the different mind-set held by the millennials.”


Agencies need to learn how the generations have formed, understand their social norms and expectations, and manage them accordingly. Each age group’s specific encounters with the world have molded them, and no amount of reshaping will work.

Leaders must embrace millennials, rather than embark on a futile attempt to change them to resemble the other age groups. These employees bring fresh ideas, high ambitions, and a socially driven nature. Departments need to integrate millennials’ values and ethics into today’s workforce. Understanding and remaining sensitive to the needs of these workers will help effectively recruit and retain them; in return, they will care about the agency.33 Millennials require a lot of attention, and leaders need to listen to, value, praise, and accommodate these personnel.

Each employee differs psychologically.34 Agencies must value all personnel as individuals with different needs, wants, and desires. They will succeed by recognizing their personnel as unique human beings with great potential.35

“Although Generation X constitutes most of today’s workforce, millennials are filling gaps quickly.”

Major Dietrich can be reached at


1 For additional information, see Joseph Pangaro, “Leading the Modern Police Force: A Veteran Officer’s View,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, June 1, 2010, accessed May 17, 2018,
2 Ilene Wasserman, “Generations Working Together,” Entrepreneur, September 6, 2007, accessed May 16, 2018,
3 “Generational Differences Chart,” West Midland Family Center, accessed May 16, 2018,
4 Ben Steverman, “Working Past 70: Americans Can’t Seem to Retire,” Bloomberg, July 10, 2017, accessed May 16, 2018,
5 Tia Benjamin, “Generational Characteristics of the Workplace,” Houston Chronicle, accessed May 17, 2018,
6 Sally Kane, “Baby Boomers in the Workplace,” The Balance Careers, April 19, 2018, accessed May 17, 2018,
7 Sally Kane, “The Common Characteristics of Generation X Professionals,” The Balance Careers, March 4, 2018, accessed May 17, 2018,
8 Rachel Hosie, “Millennials Are Struggling at Work Because Their Parents ‘Gave Them Medals for Coming Last,’” Independent, February 7, 2017, accessed May 17, 2018,
9 Mark McCrindle, Understanding Generation Y (North Parramatta, Australia: The Australian Leadership Foundation, 2003), accessed May 17, 2018,
10 The Whys and Hows of Generations Research (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2015), accessed May 17, 2018,
11 Mark Sanborn, The Fred Factor (New York, NY: Random House, 2004).
12 “Against All Odds—The Emergence of Generation Y,” SIS International Research, accessed May 17, 2018,
13 Ibid.
14 “Law Enforcement Personnel Retention,”, September 20, 2007, accessed May 17, 2018,
15 Warren Bennis, On Becoming a Leader, rev. ed. (New York, NY: Perseus Books Group, 2003).
16 John Bratton, Keith Grint, and Debra L. Nelson, The Art and Science of Leadership: Explorations into the Classics (Mason, OH: Thomson South-Western, 2004).
17 Understanding Generation Y: What You Need to Know About the Millennials (Princeton, NJ: Princeton One and Solutions 21), accessed May 17, 2018,
18 See, for instance, Dash Coleman, “More than 100 Savannah-Chatham Police Officers Promoted,” Savannah Morning News, June 16, 2015, accessed May 17, 2018,
19 McCrindle.
20 Gary Vest, “Closing the Recruitment Gap: A Symposium’s Findings,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, November 2001, accessed May 17, 2018,
21 Barnabas Piper, “Authority, Authoritarianism, and the Millennial Generation,” Lifeway Leadership, February 19, 2015, accessed May 17, 2018,
22 James Kouzes and Barry Posner, The Leadership Challenge (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2002).
23 Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1999).
24 Kouzes and Posner.
25 Claire Raines, Connecting Generations: The Sourcebook for a New Workplace (Seattle, WA: Crisp Publications, 2003).
26 Ibid; and Susan M. Heathfield, “11 Tips for Managing Millennials,” The Balance Careers, November 8, 2017, accessed May 18, 2018,
27 Raines; and Kevin Freiberg and Jackie Freiberg, Guts! Companies That Blow the Doors off Business-as-Usual (New York, NY: Currency Doubleday, 2005).
28 Raines; and Heathfield.
29 Raines; and Buckingham and Coffman.
30 Raines; and Freiberg and Freiberg.
31 Raines; and Heathfield.
32 Ibid.
33 Generation Y: The Millennials (NAS Insights, 2006), accessed May 18, 2018,
34 Buckingham and Coffman.
35 Sanborn.