3 strategies for handling age-related comments at work

Today’s work world has been undergoing seismic shifts in recent decades—everything from waves of rapidly evolving technological innovation to how employers and employees perform their job tasks and interact with each other is changing at breakneck speeds. Many of these have been positive changes, and have empowered us to be better and more productive employees than ever before.

Chief among these new developments is a more enlightened, open-minded, and bias-free way of viewing and communicating with our coworkers. Most workplaces have put the smackdown on inappropriate, politically incorrect, and off-color comments of all sorts and have adopted strict no tolerance policies towards such behavior, and for good reason—for too long, many employees had to suffer all sorts of abuse and discomfort in an effort to hold onto their jobs. It’s an unfortunate reality for sure, and hopefully one that has improved and will continue to improve over time.

That said, as much as we may want to think that we’re all living in more progressive and enlightened times, mistakes and missteps—occasionally in the form of unfair judgments and inappropriate comments—still happen at work. These include comments related to age—which can adversely effect both younger and older employees.

Older employees can be on the receiving end of comments that indirectly or directly allude to the notion that they’re out-of-date; unable to innovate, think creatively, or keep up with changes in technology; and are devoid of energy and motivation. The list goes on and it can really make things uncomfortable, especially when the comments are far from reality.

Younger employees may experience comments on the other end of the spectrum—remarks that they’re inexperienced, irresponsible, or unable to make wise and fully informed decisions; are erratic or unreliable; or are part of an inferior generation of workers.

Even if we’re not the direct targets of the inappropriate age-related comments, simply overhearing them can make the workplace an awkward and uncomfortable place. So, how should these types of comments be handled? It can be a tricky question, depending on the situation. Consider the following strategies to help you handle these situations appropriately.

Address them head on

If you hear an age-related comment that makes you feel uncomfortable, mention it directly to the person who made it, if feasible (of course, consider your office dynamics when deciding to do so). This shouldn’t come in the form of an attack, however; be polite, mention the fact that the comment was inappropriate and unfair, and calmly ask that individual to refrain from making such comments in the future. If you’re dealing with a rational person, this should do the trick and hopefully you receive an apology and a satisfying end to the incident—and both of you can move on with your lives and get some work done.

Don’t dignify them with a response

Sometimes, simply not responding in any way an uncomfortable remark is an effective way of diffusing its impact. Ignoring an inappropriate comment can strip it of its power, and hopefully, the individual who made the comment gets the subtle message that they just made a mistake and should avoid repeating it in the future. This can also be a sound approach in instances where you don’t have to interact with the person on a regular basis.

Get help if needed

If you’ve tried the other two approaches and the comments persist or are getting worse, or if you don’t feel comfortable addressing the situation on your own (perhaps a superior or a contentious colleague is involved), then consider using the resources available to you for help. Depending on the size and structure of your workplace, you may be able to bring this issue to the attention of HR personnel, a compliance officer, or your boss. Be direct, honest, and brave. Remember, sometimes you have to be proactive and get involved in order for positive changes to occur.

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