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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

Learn to be age-blind at work

By Sharon Aschaiek
Special to the Toronto Sun

When Andy Levy-Ajzenkopf got promoted to manager of operations at a Montreal-area FedEx, the 28-year-old was confident that his 10 years working there as a cargo-handler, and two years of management training, would make it an easy transition. Little did he know that the biggest challenge would be leading his crew of seasoned employees.
Andy Levy-Ajzenkopf was made manager of operations at FedEx at age 28. Little did he know that the biggest challenge would be leading his crew of seasoned employees.

"A lot of people were older than me and had been there for 15 to 20 years. They were skeptical of my ability to manage them, since I was new to the department and younger than them," says Levy-Ajzenkopf, who managed up to 40 couriers, warehouse workers and customer service staff. "They didn't feel I had the wisdom to do job."

The ageism that Levy-Ajzenkopf felt made it difficult for him to do his job effectively and implement needed change.


"I came across long-term employees with their minds set about how the job was done, and they didn't adhere to all the policies," he recalls. "I was an unknown quantity at the beginning, and people are averse to change."

It's not a new theme -- wherever young superiors and seasoned employees work together, there's bound to be some initial head butting. But ageism -- against the old and the young -- is back in the spotlight again with the recent release of In Good Company, a film starring Dennis Quaid playing a magazine ad executive who finds himself reporting to a barely-graduated new boss who's half his age, played by Topher Grace. The movie raises the age-old question: How do you bridge the age gap between employees and their younger boss?

"Respect is critical. A young boss has to be aware of and show respect for 25 years of experience to solve issues to produce results. New isn't always better," says Lara Dodo, branch manager of OfficeTeam, a leading global provider of temporary staffing services for administrative professionals.

"Likewise, employees should understand that their manager may be inexperienced, but might be a very smart up-and-comer," she adds. "He has high energy and the potential to make it a highly successful partnership, but they must be patient learning his management style."

Dodo says much workplace ageism stems from the misconceptions both parties have about each other. The young boss, she says, may assume from the outset that tenured employees are less willing to change -- to adapt to new technologies, try new ideas, etc. Assuming this from the start, Dodo says, makes for a tenser, less productive working relationship.

Senior employees, she adds, may see the manager's lack of experience as a negative. This may blind them from seeing the positive flip side of the situation -- qualities such as a good understanding of young consumers, the latest industry best practices being taught in the classroom, fresh energy and serious commitment.

While much of management theory today rests on achieving team, versus individual, success, Dodo suggests managers may fare better with mature employees -- all employees, in fact -- by recognizing their individual strengths and needs.

"Find out what motivates and is important to that individual. Factor that goal in your role, and drive the team that way. Tapping into an individual's demands will help you get more out of them."

Judi Cutler, co-director of government and media relations at Canada's Association for the FiftyPlus, says we all have a vested interest in conquering ageism in the workplace, especially given that more people are staying in the workplace longer.

Eventually this will be a must, since it's estimated that by 2020, the country may be short one million workers due to an aging population and declining birth rates.

Cutler says the key to conquering ageism is to be age-blind -- to judge people by their abilities and talents.


"We're missing out on an awful lot by holding predisposed ideas about age," Cutler says. "We have to stop looking at people by age and instead look at their skills and what they offer."

Levy-Ajzenkopf, now 32, has since left FedEx to work as a freelance writer in Toronto. But he recalls that the critical part to overcoming the age gap was getting into the trenches with his couriers and going on delivery rides with them to see things from their perspective. Eventually, with enough time and open communication, he was able to effectively lead his team.

"By encouraging open dialogue between the employees and me, I was able to defuse some of the situations. You have to be open to working things out."

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