Are you sick of hearing older co-workers say, “You remind me so much of my son?"
Or, want to pull your hair out when someone mentions that something “happened before your time?”
While these comments about your age may seem innocent at first blush, it’s hard not to feel insulted when you feel like you’re being treated as a child in a professional environment. Such statements can undermine teamwork, morale, and productivity, sending a message that you’re perceived as underqualified to have reached your rank or that you’re inexperienced at your job.
In the workplace, age is a sensitive subject—so much so that HR policies consider asking a co-worker’s age a major don’t. However, as Baby Boomers remain in the workforce longer and as Millennials surge onto the job scene in record numbers, we’re bound to see more clashing of the generations than ever before.
Whether an older co-worker is making a genuinely passing comment about your youth or you feel like you’re being put down about your age at work, here are four healthy, respectful ways to react.
1. Acknowledge it and Move On
While the occasional co-worker may use your younger age as a way to show that you’re in a subordinate role, it’s important to realize that most people don’t intend for their comments to sound malicious. Though misdirected and sometimes careless, they may think saying, for example, that you remind them of their children is actually a way to relate to you!
So, try to give people the benefit of the doubt, and instead of getting annoyed (or reacting), calmly acknowledge the statement and move on. Just say, “I get that a lot,” or “Thank you!”—and get back to the work at hand.
2. Redirect the Conversation
When the topic of your age comes up, you can often nip it in the bud by quickly guiding the conversation back to topics you’re comfortable with. For example, if at lunch an older co-worker brings up a television show that aired “before you were even born,” respond by refocusing the conversation on a current show everyone can chat about. Or, if in a meeting your co-worker that a project was "long before your time," reference similar projects you've worked on in the past. It’ll signal to the commenter—and everyone else in the room—that your age is irrelevant.
3. Give a Lighthearted, Humorous Reply
Another way to deflect age-related remarks is to let them roll off your back with a smile. For example, “Thanks—I’m not as young as I look, I just stay out of the sun!” or “I guess all of that expensive face cream is paying off!” Using humor in these types of situations helps you not take yourself—or your co-workers’ unnecessary observations—too seriously. Just be careful to use humor with caution: Dialing up the snark too much could backfire.
4. Speak Up
If someone’s remarks start bothering you, interfere with your work, or border on offensive, it’s time to confront the situation. Try doing so after a specific incident—describe what happened objectively, and explain exactly how it affects your work. For example, “When you brought up my age in front of our clients, it diverted attention from the proposal I was presenting and got the meeting off track. I’m sure you didn’t mean any harm, but could we leave that out of future conversations?” This shows your co-worker you mean business, but lays the foundation for a cooperative, not adversarial, conversation.
If the behavior continues, start documenting specific times when the person makes remarks about your age and how you’ve responded. If you’ve tried unsuccessfully to work things out on your own, approach your boss and present the situation as a business issue rather than a personal complaint. Explaining that your co-worker’s behavior is affecting morale or client relationships will resonate more strongly than expressing your annoyance that someone is getting under your skin.
Even if someone ruffles your feathers, it’s important to always maintain the upper hand and act professionally. In the long run, your confidence and stellar reputation are what will earn you respect from everyone in the office.
Melody Wilding teaches human behavior at The City University of New York and is a nationally recognized Master Coach who distills psychological insights into actionable career advice. A licensed social worker trained at Columbia University, she’s helped thousands of ambitious professionals and entrepreneurs master their mindset and emotions for greater success. Melody has worked with CEOs and executives running top startups along with published authors and media personalities. Get free careers tools at melodywilding.com or book one-on-one coaching sessions on The Muse's Coach Connect.More from this Author