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Dealing with a Generation Gap at Work

By Lily Garcia
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, September 10, 2009 12:00 AM

What do you do when someone treats you like you aren't allowed at the "adult table" at work. There's a 20+ age difference, and I can't remember the last time I was "carded". We have jobs at comparable levels. Neither person is senior to the other. I get the impression that this person feels like I have a problem with their age (not true at all! and never expressed.) However, this person has made unprofessional comments about my age and experience. How do you suggest I proceed?

I will not speculate as to the reasons why there is so much distrust across generations of employees. I know only that the problem is very real. For every question or comment that I receive from a person who feels discriminated against at work or in the interview process for being older, I hear from someone, like you, who feels unfairly judged as immature or incapable because of youth.

I have no doubt that there is more than a kernel of truth to the stories of age discrimination that I am told. Many hiring managers do make negative assumptions about the skills and adaptability of older applicants. This, combined with the fact that older job applicants are often competing for the less plentiful jobs at more senior staff levels, means that their job opportunities are more limited than those of younger applicants. I also have no doubt that the fresh-faced twenty-something manager can expect to work much harder than a leader of more mature aspect in gaining the respect of his team.

When negative assumptions regarding someone age forty and older translate into employment decisions, a potential violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) has occurred. The laws of some states and the District of Columbia protect younger workers from age discrimination as well. Legal liability for discrimination under the ADEA can be sizeable because sympathetic juries often acknowledge the practical difficulty that older workers looking for jobs can face, both because of the scarcity of jobs at a senior level and because of the type of ageism that led to the lawsuit in the first place. Beyond the cost of lawsuits, allowing irrelevant characteristics such as age to factor into an assessment of someone's abilities is simply bad for business, resulting in missed opportunities to recruit and develop talented people. But all of this has little relevance to employees in a multigenerational workforce who are just trying to find a way to get things done with a minimal amount of friction.

The most effective antidote to your situation is an open mind. If your colleague thinks that you take issue with his or her age, it may be because you fit the profile of the type of person who has, in fact judged him or her based on age in the past. In making these assumptions about you, your colleague is, of course, guilty of the very same counterproductive behavior that has him or her on the defensive. If you, in turn, react in a manner that draws attention to your age difference, then you will only be reinforcing your colleague's negative stereotypes about younger people.

The only way that you will be able to successfully diffuse the situation is by responding in precisely the opposite way that your colleague expects. If you are regarded as a neophyte, you should strive to portray the sage. When your colleague makes negative comments about your age and experience, you should respond with curiosity rather than anger or agitation. Acknowledge your obvious age difference and ask your colleague whether he or she has constructive feedback for you regarding how you can keep age from becoming an obstacle to your professional effectiveness and your working relationship.

Your colleague might be making these inappropriate age-related comments reflexively. It maybe a behavior learned over the years as a way of softening the bite of growing older in a job as his or her colleagues grow younger. It may have nothing, in other words, to do with you.

By approaching your colleague in a friendly and open posture, you will shift your interpersonal dynamic and possibly lay the groundwork for a more amicable working relationship.

It would be nice of your colleague could also come around to understanding the perspective of a younger worker who bears no age-related ill will and genuinely wants to get along. However, you cannot control your colleague's thoughts or reactions. You only have dominion over the extent to which you allow this dynamic to poison your relationship versus using the experience as an opportunity to learn how to bridge generational barriers.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail HRadvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.

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