How to Best Respond to Situations of Ageism in the Workplace — According to an Executive Coach
I don’t know what it is about human behavior. We like to put each other in boxes. Sure, I know we do it because of the vast volumes of information we process in a matter of seconds. We categorize information into the containers we have learned or have built for ourselves.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. And I say that from experience, of being put into boxes because of my age or my perceived age. You see, I look quite young for my age. Like 10-15 years younger. And for years, it bothered me that I would have to lead with my credentials and years of experience vs. it being taken at face value that I belonged in the room just because I was there.
Here are some of the ways I have learned to respond to ageism.
1. Recognize that it is the other person’s bias showing.
For the longest time, I had the wrong frame on the picture. I let my inner critic and the voice of doubt creep in and tell me that something was wrong with me. Didn’t I look professional enough? Was I acting “young?” Until one day, a lightbulb went off. It had nothing to do with me at all. I am professional and I don’t even know what “acting young” means. I realized that the other person was trying to make sense of the situation and inadvertently put me into a box based on their own experiences. Their bias about my age (or perceived age) was now on display.
2. Decide how you want to respond.
Once I recognized someone’s bias, I could make the conscious choice of how I wanted to respond to them. I am not proud to admit that at first, I responded with my own bias and put them into the box of being ignorant and insensitive. When that didn’t get me anywhere, I explored other strategies to respond to the situation.
Get ahead of it – when I introduce myself to groups, I get it out on the table and out of the way. I provide my credentials and that I’ve been doing this work for over 23 years now. And I let them do the mental math and wrestle with their own bias.
Use it as a teaching moment – Anyone who works with me knows my passion for building psychological safety in teams and interactions with others. Ageism is one of the barriers that prevent us from including others in the group.
3. Check your own biases.
Once I realized that I was responding bias for bias, I started a soul-searching journey that continues to this day.
Are there any other biases I have?
Do I have initial reactions to others that I later find out are not true?
Have I ever been “surprised” by someone and something they did because that’s not what I thought of them?
4. Advocate for others.
Recognizing my biases and those of others was a great starting point. Now I needed to put action to it. Not just for me, but for others as well. I learned this from a colleague years ago. We worked in a manufacturing environment and were hosting a networking event. Despite standing next to each other, one by one, guests immediately made their way to him to shake his hand and introduce themselves. His response was very professional and validating to me. He introduced himself and then said, “Let me introduce you to my boss Kristy Busija.” He advocated for me and now it is my mission to advocate for others who are treated differently based on age (or anything else).
While it is natural for us to categorize what we see to quickly filter through thousands of pieces of information. But is it not ok to place others in a box that limits someone’s potential or a box they have to fight their way out of just to be seen and heard? When you are able to see another’s bias creeping in, you have the choice of how you want to respond. Then check to see if you’ve unconsciously (or consciously) placed others in boxes and choose to let them free and advocate for them.