Age: The New Glass Ceiling

The New Glass CeilingI was talking to my mom on the phone the other day and she was telling me about a problem she was having at work with one of her employees.

My mom is the head of the human resources for a large government agency and has over 35 years of human resources and management experience. However, she explained that she was having issues with an employee who had been in the department almost his entire career but produced what she considered to be poor-quality work.

She said to me, “His work is just not up to par and I have to constantly review it and send it back to him to re-do. But he has so much experience. I’m afraid to challenge him directly on it.”

I thought about this for a minute and came back with this advice:

Experience doesn’t equal competency.”

There’s a lot of talk about inter-generational relations in the workplace. Gen-Y/Millenials, Gen-Xers, Baby Boomers, Traditionals—each age group is defined with the precision and detail of a PBS nature documentary. Boomers are competitive, Gen-Xers are lazy, Millenials are demanding and tech-savvy, etc.

Why are we all so quick to judge people based on age? Are we participating in a socially acceptable form of ageism?

The story about my mom just serves to illustrate my point: respect should be given based on proven performance. Period. Years served is only a measure of how long someone has managed to hold onto a job, not on whether they are a good employee. Past experience can be a good indicator of whether someone will have the skill set to perform well at a certain position in the future, but the true test of their productivity and quality as an employee can only come from actually doing the work.

As one of the youngest employees at my company (beat out only by the former college intern we just recently hired on full time) I find myself running into a new glass ceiling—one in which younger but more senior (in terms of years of service to the company) employees are being passed over for promotions in favor of hiring “more experienced” candidates from outside. This often makes me wonder:

Why do we favor the potential of “experienced” employees over the proven track record of younger ones?

Which should command more respect? A résumé of tiny successes over a long period time or a large amount of success in a short amount of time?

I don’t really have answer to these questions. But maybe in another 10 years I’ll begin to understand.


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11 responses »

  1. total truth; sometimes, people let age get too much in the way than it really ought to be, and it really hurts to be judged on such an insignificant value. i think you gave your mother good advice.

  2. Experience may equal obsolesence and burnout. Or experience may equal highly developed skills, good judgment, and talent refined to a level of excellence.

    I think many organizations, especially in competitive fields and fields demanding creativity, have adopted the practice of purposely churning their workforce to avoid stagnation and stimulate excellence. This is a change in operating procedure that has developed over the past two or three decades.

    Previously, loyalty to the organization was valued, and organizations saw advantage in retaining skilled employees, especially those acclimated to established procedures. Organizations saw benefit in avoiding disruption and not having to train new workers.

    Under the new practice, many companies constantly seek to attract new talent and energy with younger recruits.

    At the same time, many organizations avoid stagnation by recruiting experienced people from outside for mid- and high-level positions, rather than promoting from within. A new manager from outside is thought more likely to bring new ideas and shake up established procedures than a long-term employee, who may tend to reinforce established procedures and favor comfortable relationships.

    How many times have you seen an organization conduct a “nationwide search” for a new baseball team manager, football coach, police chief, university president, school superintendent, or CFO, virtually ignoring many well-qualified candidates already on staff?

    So I think there may be at least two “glass ceilings.” Bright younger employees may hit a plateau after a few years. And experienced, senior employees may be seen as a liability in an organization when change is valued more than stability.

    Ask any worker over 50 and you will likely find agreement that age discrimination against older workers is rampant. At lower levels of age and experience, workers often believe that they have to change jobs every few years in order to advance. — Bernie

  3. Bernie,

    You make an excellent point! Constant churn affects everyone, not just younger employees who feel like they need to change jobs every few years just to get ahead, but also older more established workers who are pushed out under the guise of “keeping it fresh.” In both cases quality talent is being wasted. Thank you for adding a new perspective.

  4. So I think there may be at least two “glass ceilings.” Bright younger employees may hit a plateau after a few years. And experienced, senior employees may be seen as a liability in an organization when change is valued more than stability.

    He is right. Your post sounds like a bit of belly aching–if you really want to advance your career you NEED to pick up and go to another firm. Every time I have done that I get a 15-20% raise. Guess what–you’ll rarely get that bey staying in the same place…

  5. Isn’t it unfortunate? My father in law is a proficient professional accountant who worked for the same company for 30 years, slowly working his way up the ladder. Last year, without warning, he was forced into early retirement at 55, and while compensated handsomely, is now facing the glass ceiling of age. The last several months has found him working at H&R block – a top rated accountant making $12 at H&R Block! – and now he is applying for Walmart for the benefits. How does this happen? Isn’t it unfortunate?

  6. Nothing in your story gave the point of view of the other person. Quite possibly s/he is blogging somewhere about younger people who have got point A very well, but miss points B, C and D and don’t know they are missing those points!

    The advice you might have given your mother was to first try to step away from her irritation (it is hard) by listing everything good about the work she received. And to discipline herself. This is not going to be a Yes but – I will butter you up so I can complain afterwards.

    She may only list what has gone well. When she has done that let’s see what she says.

  7. I definitely agree that promotions and such should not be solely based on seniority, however…

    “Which should command more respect? A résumé of tiny successes over a long period time or a large amount of success in a short amount of time?”

    In my opinion, neither. The one thing I’m finding is that companies tend to be careful of one hit wonders. In the sense that they expect a behaviour to be demonstrated consistently (this may mean a year or 2) before you can be promoted. Far too many people (millennials especially) come out of school and because they do well on their first project think they should be promoted to Sr. VP!

  8. First, congratulations on a well done blog. Your mom’s employee sounds like a lot of people —- one year of experience twenty times does not give you 20 years’ of experience. And, as you said, it should does not equal competency. Is there a missing sentence? What was the advice you gave your mom? How do you confront the ‘experienced’ employee who is not performing? After years of handling similiar situations, I have finally recognized that most of the failings of ‘my’ people derive directly from my own failings as a manager or leader.

  9. Pingback: My Short List on How To Do Better At Work. » article » What Would Dad Say

  10. Pingback: To Get Ahead, Make Just Another Cubicle Your Goal : Brazen Careerist

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