A reader asks:
I recently started a brand new position. They hired me as the department manager and also hired a project coordinator (my direct report). We have just completed our first week together.
I am in the awkward learning curve of trying to figure out my role along with company policies, procedures, and culture, while trying to provide direction and support for project coordinator. It has become quickly obvious that my direct report has a major issue with my age (I would guess I am 20 years younger than her). She's making comments like, "Gosh, it's crazy to have a manager that is the same age as my daughter," or, "This structure will be an adjustment for me, I am used to being in the driver's seat. Good for you for advancing in your career so quickly."
With the first comment, I was in complete shock. Who says anything to their manager about their age?! I have since used subtle humor tactics to divert or pivot from her age hang-ups, but they continue to sneak in. How should I proceed? It doesn't help that we are both new and she obviously feels like we are on equal footing. For the record, I am not that young (37) nor do I look youthful (despite all of those expensive face creams).
When subtle humor works in these situations, it can be a great thing. It can let the other person save face and let you both avoid an awkward conversation. But it's a one-shot deal--if the message doesn't seem to land, then you need move to a more direct conversation. Continuing to just hint or pivot is too passive for a manager-employee relationship.
So it's time to switch over to being very direct. The next time she makes a comment about your relative ages, stop the conversation and address it right in the moment: "Jane, you've mentioned our relative ages several times. I'm assuming it won't be an issue for you." And then just stop and see what she says. She may squirm, she may be embarrassed, or she may dig in her heels and make another comment about how it's just unusual for her. If she does the latter, you should say, "It doesn't strike me as odd, but I'd rather we not get sidetracked on it."
Hopefully, this will be enough to convey to her that the comments need to stop. But if not and she continues, watch to see how frequent it is as she gets settled in, and also how aggressive it is. If it's just a couple more comments and they're not particularly egregious, I'd let it go--there's power in not being rattled by it, and in not feeling you have to address every little challenge to your authority. (For example, "Good for you for advancing in your career so quickly" probably doesn't need to be a big deal unless it's said snidely or is part of a pattern of constant age references.) But if it's frequent and/or aggressive, then you do need to stamp it out with something like, "Our ages really aren't relevant here. Is there a reason you keep mentioning them?"
My bigger worry here, though, would be whether these are just naive and clumsy comments, or whether they indicate a deeper problem on her end with reporting to someone younger. If they're just comments, you can probably move past them pretty quickly. But if she resents having you as her manager or doesn't respect your ability to do your job, that's an issue you'll need to nip in the bud by addressing it just as you would any other performance issue. For example: "I've noticed you seem reluctant to take on assignments I give you. What's going on?" Or, "We agreed that you'd do X, but you did Y. What happened?"...escalating to, if it continues, "In this role, I need you to do XYZ. Can you do that going forward?"
Meanwhile, though, the best thing you can do is to treat her like you haven't even noticed your age difference. Don't let yourself feel awkward about it. Remember that you were hired for a reason, and operate with the confidence of your position.
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