Posted in HR

The Beginner’s Guide to Managing Employees Who Are Older Than You

Age is just a number, right? Sure, except when you’re a baby-faced manager who gets stage fright while managing someone older than you. Millennials are currently the biggest age group in our workforce, meaning that a lot of younger folks are now climbing into management roles. Young managers have a tricky line to tread when they have experience and know-how, but their employees have just a little more.

To stave off any awkwardness, here’s a playbook to help you navigate this new, confusing, intergenerational playing field we call work. Let’s crack it open:

Rule #1: Don’t ever ask the age question—but get ready for others to quiz you.

It’s as simple as this—don’t ask people how old they are. For starters, it’s awkward. Plus, it’s also illegal, says The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, or ADEA. While you can ask for someone’s date of birth in a job application, you can’t use that knowledge to impact any business or employment decisions.

That being said, someone may still throw the age question at you. If you’re cool with it, share away. If you’re not, don’t. Prep yourself with these dodgy answers:

  • “I’m over 18, and I’ll leave it at that.”
  • “I have an age, but that’s all you’ll get out of me.”
  • “No comment.”
  • [Insert other funny way to avoid the question here.]

Rule #2: Don’t hide behind a screen.

Not everyone grew up with a silver iPhone. Most of your interactions with your team should be face to face, not just through Slacks and emails. If communicating in person is a challenge for you, make sure you have a recurring one-on-one meeting with your employee so you can see them more often. And finally, ask them how they like to communicate best. You never know, they may be just as glued to a screen as you are.

Rule #3: Your employees’ experience is a huge advantage. So use it.

Older employees are a huge boon to your team. Since they have more experience under their belt, they have a broader outlook on things, which only comes from putting in the years. Therefore, it’s your job to carve out areas where they can flex that expertise. To begin, schedule a one-on-one meeting that’s more introspective than running through their workload. Have them walk through the highlights of what they’ve accomplished in their career and where they want to go from here. Then, find ways you can draw those powers into their day to day, even if it’s not explicitly stated in their job description.

Rule #4: Identify the things that motivate them. Then, give it to them.

Select benefits that your employees actually want, at each stage of their lives. Older employees may not be as interested in free beer than, for instance, the ability to work from home and having more comprehensive health benefits and 401(k) plans. In the same vein, younger folks may not be as into retirement planning and instead want more learning and development opportunities. Ask employees what they want, and then see if you can find ways to give it to them. That way, you can create extra motivators and an inclusive environment where people can do their best work.

Rule #5: If they’re doing a spectacular job, put them in charge.

Even though you may be the supervisor, that doesn’t mean you should call all the shots. Give your experienced staff autonomy so they can make decisions on their own. This is one of the tenets of being a great manager: trusting others. For example, instead of having someone own one aspect of a new project, consider having them manage the whole thing (if it makes sense). By believing in your team and their ability to knock it out of the park, it frees you up to do the same thing. Then follow up successes by promoting those top performers.

Rule #6: Shower people with recognition.

Know that your team’s success = your success. If you’re a new manager, you may have been on the receiving end of kudos for awhile. However, being a manager means you need to spread that sweet recognition straight to your employees. Seeing other people ace their jobs shows that you’re doing your job, and it’s important to make people feel recognized to keep that goodness going. From handing out spot bonuses to creating a simple board or Slack channel where you can tell people that they did a great job, there are many ways to make your team feel appreciated. Use this collection of employee recognition ideas to spark some ideas.

Rule #7: Be considerate when planning team events.

Not every employee loves to guzzle beers during happy hour. When planning team events, consider scheduling them during work hours to make it easier for employees with families to attend. This is a small detail, but it can be really isolating if half the team is always hanging out and your employee has to jet home to take care of their kids, parents, or other obligations.

Rule #8: Ask for feedback and take it seriously.

Feedback is always nerve-wracking. But by proactively asking for it, it gives you a chance to improve as a manager. It will also put you in the right mindset to give your team the same thing in return. A framework called radical candor can help you and your team build up the courage to give each other constructive, useful feedback in a caring, focused way.

To get the feedback train going, ask questions like:

  • What are some things that you want me to do more of?
  • What are some things that I could do better?
  • How do you see me doing that?

Ask for examples so you can really get an understanding of what your areas to improve are. Then, don’t get defensive if what they’re saying surprises you. This is a caring thing to do because your employee is taking the time to help you improve. Thank them for offering it, and remember that it’s sometimes just as hard to give feedback as it is to receive it.

Rule #9: You’ve got this. Squash that self-doubt with a few easy exercises.

Imposter syndrome is real. The term describes the stomach-churning feeling people get when they feel like they’re a fraud. To overcome it, identify the little things that make you feel better and more in charge. Then, do them. Whether it’s wearing that red blazer you feel great in or knocking out agenda items in a meeting, confidence multiplies the more you have it. Below are a few quick things that will give you an extra shot, right when you need it:

It’s going to feel weird at first when you have to manage someone older than you—but try to snap out of that mindset. Think of it as an opportunity to create a meaningful relationship with a person you may not have gotten a chance to know otherwise. And don’t let the number of years you’ve been on this planet skew your perception of things. You worked hard to get where you’re at, and you should be proud of that. The differences between you and your employee may be real, but at the same time, so are the similarities.