Millennials, can you relate to your older co-workers?

Everybody and their dog has workshops these days on how older workers should relate to Millennials. That’s a fine idea, but does anyone ever offer a workshop to Millennials on how to relate to their older co-workers?

I’m wondering this after seeing a recent “Work Advice” column by Karla Miller of the Washington Post:

I am an older woman working in a field among predominantly younger workers and would love insight on how to deal with frequent references to my age. I love what I do and have much to contribute, but the comments are starting to wear on me.

As an example, at a recent conference when I was about to make a presentation, a younger colleague twice made reference to the fact that I had my notes on 5 x 7 rather than 3 x 5 note cards, saying, “Guess that’s what you gotta do when you get old.”

This individual thought she was being funny and wanted to make sure everyone heard the “joke.” I said nothing, but it pushed all my self-doubt buttons, and I gave a substandard presentation.

I understand I could simply ignore such comments. But what I’d love is a simple, honest, thoughtful response — not snarky or confrontational, because I don’t think that would stop future comments, but a way to educate the colleague on how inappropriate and harmful these “jokes” are.

Needless to say, Karla didn’t approve of the youngster’s behavior, and neither do I.

Kids, we love you and want you to succeed. We understand you don’t mean any harm. We also understand that you are new to the workplace and probably don’t know all the rules yet. In that spirit, here are a few things you need to know:

There’s, like, this federal law? Called the Age Discrimination in Employment Act? Under federal law, it’s illegal to discriminate against anyone 40 or older because of their age. (Most states have their own age discrimination laws, too.) Constant remarks or even jokes about a person’s age can be evidence of age discrimination and can even be considered age-based harassment in violation of the ADEA and state law. Trust me, you don’t want to be fired for unlawful harassment when you still have your whole life ahead of you.

Never tease an older co-worker about her age. Not even if you hear your elders making age-related jokes, and not even if you hear the co-worker calling herself old. It won’t be the same coming from you.

Don’t stereotype or condescend. Some younger workers assume their older co-workers can’t operate a smart phone, don’t know social media from a hole in the ground, and wouldn’t know a Twitter bird if it bit them on the nose. But did you know that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were both born in 1955? (Tim Cook is going on 59, hardly a spring chicken.) Also, if you see your older co-worker doing something “technological” that anybody knows how to do (like texting), don’t marvel out loud about how “cool” it is that he can do it.

If you can’t resist making age-related jokes, keep these rules in mind. First, while you’re young, you can always joke about your own generation. Yes! Joke about how inexperienced and “entitled” you are. (This is an unfair stereotype about young people, but coming from you it will be considered lovable self-deprecating humor.) Second, you can probably get away with teasing someone who is barely older than you are. For example, if you’re 29 and a half, and your co-worker just turned 30, go for it. Third, never forget that teasing about age gets less funny based on two variables: (a) The distance between the ages of the Teasor and the Teasee, and (b) the age of the Teasee.

Be considerate of your co-workers as individuals. Some people are sensitive about their ages, no matter what age they are. Pay attention to that, and if you perceive that your jokes may hurt your co-worker’s feelings, then hold your tongue.

Robin Shea is a Partner with the law firm of Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, LLP and has more than 20 years’ experience in employment litigation, including Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (including the Amendments Act), the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act, the Equal Pay Act, and the Family and Medical Leave Act; and class and collective actions under the Fair Labor Standards Act and state wage-hour laws; defense of audits by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs; and labor relations. She conducts training for human resources professionals, management, and employees on a wide variety of topics.


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