Updated Tue, Sep 2, 2014 8:31 am
While finishing her MBA at a top tier university, Sarah was enthusiastically recruited by a large company. She accepted their offer to join the marketing department. Once there, she connected with a powerful mentor who helped her snag plum assignments. For several years Sarah was the most junior professional in her group, and she enjoyed being treated like a young star.
After a few years, the growing company made a wave of new hires and Sarah began to feel neglected. She said she was stuck with routine workwhile the interesting new projects went to her younger colleagues.
Sarah was asked to supervise the internship program, but didn't enjoy the work. She said the interns didn't have the right work ethic and were obsessed by technology. One day as she entered the kitchen, she heard them making fun of her for being clueless about the power of social media.
When Sarah came to me for coaching, she complained that she was past her career peak. She felt like she was cut off from the company's high potential challenges and might be too old to compete for another good job elsewhere. Sarah was 34 at the time.
Sarah felt she was the victim of age discrimination and to some degree her concerns were well founded. Ageism is rampant in the workplace and can be hard to fight. And even 30-something careerists like Sarah can find themselves sidelined by employers seeking fresh talent.
Sarah found ways to demonstrate her energy, talent and enthusiasm, and soon worked her way out of her slump. One thing that helped her was finding examples of older professionals whose age did need not seem to limit their success. She noticed that while some in her circle were dissed for being out of date, others seemed timeless despite their years.
If you're facing a subtle age bias, a starting point for getting past it is to understand the negative stereotypes on which it's based. Then make it clear that the stereotypes don't fit you. Consider these strategies for minimizing the burden of ageism:
Be tech-savvy. You don't have to enjoy Skyping, sharing on Instagram or building a Twitter community. But if those are the ways that your colleagues or customers communicate, you absolutely must know how to join in. If you want to stay in the game, keep up with the technology. Take classes or find help, buy the devices, and do whatever it takes to keep your skills current. And when you don't understand the latest developments, avoid the temptation to indulge in a Luddite rant. Express an interest, ask for assistance and get on board.
Look and act fit. Some employers and younger workers believe that their older colleagues may have physical limitations that will prevent them from performing their fair share of the work. And your boss or clients won't offer you new challenges if they think you are about to have a heart attack. If you want to maximize your career options, it is vital not only that you stay healthy but also that you look healthy and you exude energy.
Talk healthy. Most of us have health issues from time to time, but we can manage the way they impact us in the workplace. Beware of sabotaging yourself by talking too much about your symptoms or crises. If you endlessly discuss your health challenges, not only will you be boring, but people may start to think of you as frail and over the hill. Talk about the great hike you took last weekend, instead of how sore you felt on Monday morning.
Be stylish. Looking shabby may seem cool when you're 27. But the older you get, the more important it is to look polished and up to date. If your clothes, hairdo or glasses seem out of style, you may seem like you are past your prime. That doesn't mean you should dress like a kid, but you should aim for a look that feels current.
Don't bring up your age. If you are older – or younger – than the people you work with, it is very tempting to keep mentioning that fact. But if you can refrain from alluding to the age difference, there is a good chance that other people will forget about it.
Build a varied network. If you are accustomed to hanging out with friends of all ages, you are more likely to blend easily into a group of younger or older people. If you don't allow age to be a barrier in your social life, you will be more comfortable talking and keeping up with different age groups at work.
Listen to your colleagues. A great starting point for building strong relationships at work is to genuinely listen to what other people have to say. If you're part of the older set, show an interest in what younger folks say and learn from their perspective.
If you put aside your own prejudices about age and look for opportunities to work on projects with people of all generations, you'll become more skillful at avoiding the burden of age bias.
Beverly Jones is an alum of Ohio University. Her column appears at Clearways Consulting LLC. Republshed with permission. For archives and additional content, visit the Clearways Consulting website.