A Crash Course in Managing Older Employees

Manage older employees

In a thriving economy, workers move up through the leadership ranks quickly. If you’re in your 20s or 30s, you may have been promoted into a management level position that would have taken longer to achieve in a weaker economy. Now you must manage employees who are more than 8 years your senior.

When these opportunities come sooner than expected, many young managers make assumptions about how they will be received by older and more seasoned employees. Your notion may be that the age gap will lead to communication issues, resentment, or even a lack of respect.

Generally, none of this is likely. Age gaps are common between managers and employees, and the assumption most of your employees will make is that you were hired or promoted into leadership because you are well-educated and qualified. Your team is impressed! Yet, one knowledge gap in your educational resume remains—How to manage older subordinates. Consider these suggestions a crash course:

Be Supportive

Though there is no rational reason for it, a sense of competition can emerge between a younger manager and an older employee. This can happen because of stereotypical judgments made by each party. Be cognizant of employees who do show signs of being leery about having a young manager and pre-empt any possibility of unhealthy competition by showing support. Demonstrate that you are personally responsible for and invested in their success.

Relate to Your Employees as a Person

Younger supervisors often have an inclination to put up a personal wall between themselves and older subordinates. The rationale can be to avoid situations that reveal a lack of life experience with marriage, family, kids, illness, and other experiences that come with living. Or it can be a misconception that personal discussions have no place in the office.

If you’re single and unmarried, you can and should express a personal interest in your employees. It’s good to be curious and interested. Ask about their life stories, work experiences, career ambitions, and even about their families. Find out how they like to be managed and what you can do to help them in their jobs. Relating to your employees as people will help you to understand them and strengthen your ability to communicate as professionals.

Don’t Jump to Technology Skill Conclusions

If you were born after 1980, generational statistics suggest you will likely know more about technology than those born much earlier. However, individuals vary in proficiency and comfort levels with new applications. Don’t assume that an older employee is lacking in technology skills, or is unwilling and unable to update their skills if necessary. If training is needed, consider cross-training, where employees raise one another’s levels of proficiency as a way to build group expertise and cohesion.

Learn from Them

New managers often assume that to reveal a dearth of expertise in any area is to show vulnerability. As you recall from business school, managers are not expected to be experts in every discipline, nor every vertical. That is why you have a team. One of the pitfalls in management is being overly concerned with how your knowledge level is perceived.

Rely on your more experienced employees to bring you up to speed in their areas of strength, and in company processes. If they have been with the company or industry for years, their experience is your asset. Remember, their tenure shows loyalty and commitment. Harness those qualities by collaborating with them in solving problems, making the department more efficient, and raising your level of customer service. The sooner you can leverage your employees’ experience for a team win, the better it will be for your relationships.

By shedding pre-conceptions about working with older subordinates, you will find that you are better able to help them succeed. Just as you would with an employee in your own age cohort, if you coach them, work together through adversity, and recognize their expertise, you will gain their respect.