Sometimes in the workplace people fail to notice the little cues they transmit. Lately, I've seen how the subtlety of ageism creeps into the workplace--it does so in a benign way, but its impact is anything but benign. Older people in the workplace can pick up cues that you did not intend to relay, such as dismissiveness, exclusion, and neglect.

You probably didn't mean it when you commented that someone "may be able to do as much golfing as they'd like." Or maybe you said, "When I'm your age, I hope I'm in as good of shape as you are." Or perhaps you exclaimed, "You must be tired for being here so long." Whatever your intent, the messages you send are received and interpreted.

If you want a dynamic, fully inclusive workplace, where everyone is welcome to give input and where everyone feels challenged, then creating safety and inclusion is important for all. Unfortunately, when it comes to ageism, many inadvertently show their bias.

You don't invite the person to outside activities.

When planning the after-work happy hour, do you leave people off the email who are older that you think are "less fun" or "will say 'no' anyhow"? If you've already made the judgment to leave someone off the list, you are guilty of age bias.

You feel that the person is incapable of learning or isn't current.

An older person in the workplace is sometimes regarded as a relic of another era--sure, maybe they can type (on a typewriter) or send a fax, but can they work on an Excel spreadsheet? In this same vein, do you avoid older people because they might not "get" current cultural references?

You act as if age is "contagious."

Some older people have ailments--maybe their knees aren't what they should be, or they are taking prescription medication to manage an age-related condition. What they have isn't "catching" in the traditional sense--you may be surprised one day yourself to look in the mirror--but you aren't going to come down with high blood pressure because an older worker in the next cubicle has it.

You are condescending or give inverse compliments.

You may end your sentences with, "Well, you wouldn't know, anyhow." Perhaps you talk about some big change in the office but you can't resist adding, "But you won't be here when that happens." Or maybe you tell someone that they are good at something or look or act fit "for someone your age." 

You avoid meaningful conversations.

When the office interaction moves beyond, "Hi, how's it going?" do you turn away? Do you take the time to sit down and have a cup of coffee with some of the older people in the office? If you do, you may find it very informative. If the person has been at the company for a long time, you may get some insight into why things are so crazy. Even if the more senior person is a relative newcomer to the company, they've been around life for a while, and can tell you a thing or two.

You have to guard against developing an unintentional bias against older folks in the workplace. There has been a lot made about the importance of Millennials and how to integrate them into the workplace. That said, you need diversity of knowledge. More and more organizations are beginning to understand that the velocity of Millennials has to be balanced with the experience and knowledge of older hands. Creative, agile teams and successful organizations need to integrate expertise across generations and as such, you as a leader need to avoid showing age bias.

Published on: Apr 2, 2015