Working Wounded: Managing an Older Employee?

With age comes experience. Listen to your employees and you may be surprised.

Sept. 28, 2007 — -- Dear WOUNDED: : I was recently promoted to be manager of my group. Unfortunately, I'm the youngest person in my team. It's been a nightmare trying to get older people to do what I need them to do.

ANSWER: I recently read a great article on elephants. I learned that most of what I knew about the big pachyderms was wrong. For starters, elephants aren't scared of mice; due to their bad eyesight, they can barely see them. I also learned that elephants have great memories, but far from inhibiting their development, their memories help elephants to learn new tricks.

Like those elephants, older workers should also have enough firepower to learn new tricks at work. But you're going to have to work with them to help see the value in a new way of doing things. To help point you in the right direction, I've listed below three dos and one don't for working with a mature work force. For more, check out Gravett and Throckmorton's book "Bridging the Generation Gap" (Career Press, 2007).

DO make a good first impression. Remember in grade school when there would be a substitute teacher and students would take over the class? OK, maybe that is a uniquely Jersey phenomenon. But the same thing can happen at work. Older workers, especially the ones who thought they should have gotten the promotion, will be looking for excuses to dismiss you, or worse. That's why it's important to demonstrate knowledge of the job and maturity, right from the start.

DO listen to them. Chances are that whatever obstacles lie ahead for you, or your department, have been seen by your staff. OK, maybe it wasn't a breakdown of a specific high-tech piece of equipment, but most workers who've been around for a while have been down a similar road. And chances are that they have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn't.

DO appreciate their differences. This year I turned 50 years old — no, that's not an old picture with this column; I seem to have inherited a young-looking gene — and I realized that I'm not as spry as I used to be. But I also realized that my problem-solving skills are a lot better than they used to be. So don't get carried away with someone who gets out of a chair more slowly than they used to, because even though their back may be more tender, their brain is probably better than ever.

DON'T have lower expectations of them. The worst thing for many older workers is pity. And the more pity you show them, the more they'll live down to your expectations. Work out challenging goals with each member of your team and you'll be probably be surprised at the skills that the old codgers still have up their sleeves.

But don't get too carried away thinking about older workers in terms of elephants, because if you work with them, they don't have to be plodding and slow moving.

Thought for the Week

"To me, old age is always 15 years older than I am." — Bernard Baruch

List of the Week

How often do managers conduct performance reviews?

  • Quarterly, 8 % in 2007, down from 10 % in 2002
  • Twice a year, 31 % in 2007, up from 19 % in 2002
  • Once a year, 58 % in 2007, down from 66 % in 2002
  • As necessary, 1 % in 2007, down from 2 % in 2002
  • Never, 2 % in 2007, down from 3 % in 2002
  • From: OfficeTeam

    Bob Rosner is a best-selling author, speaker and internationally syndicated columnist. He'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic, especially if you have better ideas than he does. His books include "The Boss's Survival Guide" and "Gray Matters: The Work place Survival Guide." Send your questions or comments to him via: publishes a new Working Wounded column every Friday.This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.