COPE CopeLine Supervisor

December 2015

A newsletter for supervisors and line managers

The Impact of Time on Our Work

According to those who study societal change, advancements in computer technology---and the many applications they have spawned---carry profound changes for the workplace. There is the familiar discussion of a "generation gap", the gulf between workers who view technology as a convenience, a quicker way to bank or shop, and the youngest among us for whom being connected is central to their lives. But according the Professor Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University, the generation gap also has to do with our relationship to time.

Zimbardo believes that many workplace issues between generations can be solved by better understanding our orientation, and that of others, to the past, present and future. In his popular online video, The Secret Powers of Time he provides interesting and amusing examples of how we view and respond to time.

In general and for the present, Americans tend to orient toward the future. This can be explained by a combination of factors including the early influence of the protestant religion, economic development, and even our climate: the farther a country is from the equator, the less constant the weather, the more concern about comfort and hence "future-minded" the population ("do I need to wear my coat tomorrow?"). But just as with the emergence of the computer, vast cultural, historical, and individual shifts in the tempo of modern American life can create differences that influence outcomes, whether on a small scale (your ability to trust others) or a large scale (public relations messaging to treat addictions).

What are the Practical Implications for the Workplace?

Many older workers are similarly future oriented. The sheer number of post Word War II workers meant that there were fewer jobs for which baby-boomers had to compete. Adjustments and personal sacrifices were accepted as a necessary part of career advancement (how about that new position in Walla Walla, Washington!) as were jobs that did not hold much appeal because one was working toward a future goal.

By comparison, the effect of technology on the youngest members of the workforce, especially young men whose brains have been raised on digitized (think "gaming"), multiple-functioning electronic devices that respond to inquiry in seconds is revolutionary. Zimbardo says a generation wired for immediate feedback is less likely to think in terms of waiting a turn before being given additional responsibilities for example, or to toe the line as are the baby-boomer generation--especially if the thing at the end of the line holds little personal appeal. In Zimbardo's words, "present oriented kids understand the future consequences of their actions, but that does not change their behavior."

So what's a manager supposed to do with an unresponsive young employee? Tamara Erickson of the Concours Group says don't jump to conclusions, "when somebody reacts to a situation in the workplace that you think is strange, don't form the snap judgement that they are wrong, not committed to the job or just don't care. Try to step back and understand where they are coming from. The second thing is don't assume that you can guess what they want, especially if you are a boomer managing someone born in the 80s." Chances are it's a matter of perspective.

Can a supervisor require an employee to use the EAP?

A troubled employee can present a supervisor with problems that range from chronic lateness all the way up to suicidal or homicidal threats. Your company's Employee Assistance Program can be an invaluable asset in dealing with these situations, but there are a few considerations to be aware of before implementing the program.

First and foremost, the EAP shouldn't be used as a weapon. Mandating assistance with a threat of firing is not only bad policy, but it's also legally problematic. Attorneys have successfully argued that such actions can be interpreted as a perception of disability in their clients, and that therefore the employee is entitled to protections under the Americans With Disabilities Act. That can make termination difficult if it is ultimately necessary.

A mandatory referral is by its nature coercive, and coercion is seldom useful in changing behavior. It is far more productive for EAP referrals to be voluntary. In that way, the employer can make clear the behavior that needs modification and the employee can avoid disciplinary actions. Both parties get the best protection in that case.

When that kind of agreement can't be reached, a formal referral should be the employer's last resort, and it should be done in consultation with HR, your EAP---and the legal department if warranted. A formal referral should be in writing and should specify that there are no sanctions for non-compliance. (An exception is a referral from a supervisor as a result of a positive drug or alcohol test and would apply to employees covered under Department of Transportation guidelines.) It should also spell out the specific work issues to be addressed. Focusing on the deficiencies and not personality offers the best chance of bringing about a successful resolution and not running afoul of the law.

If you have questions about the referral process in general, or would like to discuss a particular challenge, contact COPE at

Cope Incorporated