the age old debate | overcoming age and experience bias in the workplace | part 4
Age bias and/or experience bias in the workplace is a real thing and it can be toxic to your company culture. Combat this negative behavior by helping employees understand their value, find common ground and have an inquiry mindset.
Let’s start with an all too familiar scenario:
A tenured employee has given years of loyalty and blood/sweat/tears in their job at Company XYZ. Thanks to all of their hard work, the company has experienced incredible growth and needs to hire additional team members (Hooray! No more 2 a.m. emails!).
A young new hire with minimal experience is added to the team to take on a new set of responsibilities. The new employee comes in with a bang and gets to work presenting an overwhelming amount of ideas and suggestions to improve productivity and increase the bottom line. The boss is clearly impressed. The tenured employee, however, knows these ideas are presented out of context of the current work environment. In fact, some of these very ideas have been presented, tested and failed.
The result: The tenured employee feels overwhelmed (or, frankly, annoyed) by the new employee and the new employee feels unwelcome by the tenured employee.
So how do you help both sets of employees feel valued and find common ground?
Let’s face it. We’ve all played a role in the above scenario. Being on either side of the equation can provoke feelings of annoyance, unbelonging or flat out frustration, setting the stage for the great chasm between new hires and tenured employees in your organization.
My good friend and company culture + HR strategist Kelsey Ley is back again to help us better understand how to create common ground between new hires and tenured employees.
Thanks for coming back, Kelsey! Candidly, I’ve probably been that annoying new employee more often than not. How can new employees add value to the company without overwhelming (or annoying) their co-workers with their ideas? Should they just keep their ideas to themselves?
Thanks for having me back! We can all remember being a new employee at some point. Whatever your age or experience, when you’re new in a job, you’re excited about the opportunity and want to prove that you were the right hire. Organizational leaders want to capitalize on that zest and may appreciate the flood of new ideas and a different way of thinking. Their encouragement can be taken as a sign by new employees to keep pushing forward. Without even knowing it, new employees may be creating tension on the team.
A great first step for any new employee is to schedule meetings with coworkers to get to know them better. My favorite practice is inviting coworkers to coffee (if that’s reasonable for the size of your team). Sometimes the cost can be expensed back to the company (bonus!). Prepare a list of questions—both personal and professional—to engage them in conversation and learn about their experience. Take notes about what you’re learning, ideas the conversation sparks and best practice tips. Likely your time together will unveil reasons why things are done the way they are and give great insight into the current environment. Plus, it shows you’re genuinely interested in learning more about the culture of the company and the people you work with.
As a new employee, I hope you’re on a team and in a culture that encourages active thinking and fresh ideas! You don't have to keep new ideas to yourself, but to make them more palpable, consider talking to your coworkers about ideas before you present them to the group. If you can get others onboard with your ideas, it makes presenting them a lot easier (and frankly a lot more fun!). It’s another great way to build relationships and show that you’re all in this together.
How can tenured employees help new employees find their footing in a new environment?
I know it can feel threatening or intimidating to have a new employee come in and start spewing ideas—especially if they're good ones! I’m sure many of us have found ourselves in that position, even if we didn’t mean to.
Here’s the thing. Regardless of your time at the company or age or experience, everyone should maintain an inquiry mindset. What I mean is that everyone should think critically about the company and opportunities for improvement. The new employee with all of these ideas has less to go off of than a tenured employee, so always be thinking, “How could this be better?”
The other thing that can contribute to negative feelings for tenured employees is that maybe they offered those very same ideas once upon a time and they weren’t well received. Or maybe they’ve offered a bunch of ideas that were never accepted. Or maybe they were accepted and didn’t pan out the way they thought they would. All of these experiences can weaken our confidence and cause us to just do the job we were hired to do—nothing more and nothing less—because we don’t want to make waves.
“Failure is only the opportunity more intelligently to begin again.” —Henry Ford
Well, look. That line of thinking isn’t helping any one. In fact, those experiences that maybe didn’t pan out the way anyone thought they would? Those are the best opportunities to learn! And when you have another idea, you’re at an even better starting point than you were before.
On the other hand, if you’re presenting ideas and not being heard, that’s a totally different issue that I could spend an entire blog on. If that’s happening, you need to talk to your leader to understand why your ideas aren’t being heard. There are a number of outcomes from that conversation, but you don’t know until you ask.
Assuming positive intent on everyone’s behalf for the sake of this blog, let’s keep moving on how tenured employees can help new hires acclimate to company culture. The best way for tenured employees to help new employees is to step up and help them out. Whether formally or informally, offering to mentor a new employee is a win-win for both employees. New employees get a better understanding of the current environment and tenured employees get a fresh perspective on the current environment. Mentoring a new employee may seem like a small act, but it has a big impact on the undercurrent of the organization.
Finally, as a tenured employee you may take for granted all of the valuable knowledge you have. That knowledge is probably not found in the employee handbook or standard process documents. You know the reasons why things are done the way they are, which is so insightful to new employees (or frustrating to them if they don’t understand the why). Organizational leaders need to find ways to celebrate tenured employees who step up and willingly share their knowledge.
That’s a great segue into the final topic! How can organizational leaders encourage connections between each group of employees?
Organizational leaders are busy! Especially when they’re trying to onboard new employees, mediate tension between employees and do their day jobs. Here are a few tips for leaders to encourage camaraderie on their team:
Have regular meetings with all of your team members. It’s easy to skip out on meetings with tenured employees because you know and trust the work they do. But don’t. This face time goes beyond just a simple update on projects. It’s a chance for tenured employees to have your undivided attention. Keep these meetings like you would any other important meeting (because subconsciously + consciously they are important to your team).
Create a team agreement that encourages an open mind and positive attitude. Team agreements are a great framework for the team culture. If you want more advice about what a team agreement is, how to create one and how to hold you and your team accountable to it, please reach out me here. Basically, a team agreement is your set of values as a team. If someone isn’t living up to the values and expectations the team agrees to, it provides a way to hold them accountable and removes the emotion from the equation (because it is written out and was agreed to by everyone).
Start asking “Why not?” first. It’s easy to get jaded. We start to answer “no” or “why” before we even consider the possibilities because we think we know the answer. But there are so many factors that play into why an idea wasn’t accepted or didn’t pan out the way it should the first time it was suggested/tried. Now may be the right time to try again. By asking “why not?” first, you at least try to explore why it could work before shutting it down. And as a bonus, those shy team members who rarely speak up? They’ll probably start to feel more comfortable making suggestions.
I could spend all day on how organizational leaders impact company culture, and lucky for all of you, that blog is coming up in this series! So stay tuned!
Bottom-line: All employees offer value to a company. Celebrate all types of employees and encourage them to find common ground to create an encouraging and positive environment.
Kelsey Ley is a Company Culture Strategist & Leadership Coach. Over the past 10 years as an educator, artist, and program director, she's managed 200+ people in non-profit organizations, start-ups, and small businesses. Through organizational development, systems thinking, and the design of collaboration, Kelsey's current work focuses on building people-centered teams through virtual trainings for individuals and company-wide engagements.