My name is Leanne. I’m a lot of things and apparently, at least according to the media, one thing in particular: I’m a millennial. Depending on the source, a millennial is a person who is born after 1980 and before 2000. While there are many incredible things about being born in this generation, including having learned to use a computer as a 5-year-old and thankfully having made many of my youthful indiscretions before social medial was widespread, being a millennial has sometimes caused me difficulties in the workplace.
Thanks to a very encouraging set of parents, incredible mentors and opportunities, and a little bit of moxy and luck, I’m young for the leadership roles I’ve held, and, as such, have had to work hard to overcome some negative stereotypes about millennials. While my amazing employers, colleagues and direct reports have been, overall, wonderful to work with, there have been times where negative stereotypes about my generation have made things awkward.
Imagine that you are in a board room and someone you respect says, “Those people of colour, they expect to get a promotion after a year and want to be the CEO in two.” Or maybe they say something like, “Those people with physical disabilities, they aren’t loyal to any organization...they just want to get experience and move on”. You would be right to assume that those kinds of statements would be utterly unacceptable in any workplace. But you might be surprised that if you replace "people of colour" or "person with a disability" with "millennial", there may not be any immediate consequences (unless you count my death glare from the corner of the room).
In British Columbia, where I live and work, we have a law called the B.C. Human Rights Code that protects us from discrimination and harassment. Similar legislation exists in other jurisdictions and age is protected both provincially and federally. If you Google age discrimination, you will likely get results about ‘older workers’ and few about the chronologically impaired (as I like to call us).
Being a millennial leader has its advantages but also some pitfalls. Millennials may be the victims of workplace discrimination. We may be on the receiving end of some unintentionally hurtful comments from well-meaning people. In some instances, we may trigger insecurity among our peers and direct reports. For almost all my wonderful career, my direct reports have had more trips around the sun than I have. In many instances, they have been old enough to be my mother or father. Through much trial and error, I’ve learned how to overcome these challenges using these four easy steps.
Be honest about your age. Self-deprecating humour is funny...but it’s not funny when it’s not true. It’s ridiculous for young people to call themselves ‘old’ or say things like ‘not to date myself but... Also, your team can tell how old you are!! You wear skinny jeans, you don’t wear a watch, you don’t have cable. I’m always open with my team that I’m 34. I think it helps. I can sometimes be overheard saying, well since I was in elementary school when this decision was made, I don’t think I really have the context to criticize. I also like to acknowledge my youth in a way that hopefully doesn’t make my colleagues feel old simply because they have been doing this work longer than I have. Full disclosure, I have accidentally called people old and if you sincerely apologize immediately, it’s likely you will be forgiven, at least in my experience.
As millennials, we have some advantages. If you believe the hype, which, to be honest, I’m not sure I do, we are apparently more entrepreneurial than previous generations and seek meaning in our work, emphasizing a match with our personal values and ethics, including work-life balance, than other generations before us. As far as those last statements, please consider that we may have developed these traits because we were raised by the boomers. While neither of my parents had particularly good work-life balance, they always encouraged this for me. Let's remember to give come credit where credit is due - to the generation that raised us.
Accept that people will have feelings about your age and that it has nothing to do with you. I had one direct report years ago who was substantially older than me. She was talented in many ways and yet she constantly found ways to bring this point into conversations. She would ask me if I was planning on backpacking through Europe rather than staying in very nice hotels. She made some less-than-kind comments about my tattoos. She found ways not to tell me very important business stuff which made it hard to supervise her. Being a diva, I got haughty and didn't do much to improve the situation (in fact I very likely may have made it worse). I wish I could have found a way to approach the topic of our age difference so she could be more comfortable learning from me and sharing her skills with me. While I could have tried harder than I did, sometimes it is also important to remember there may be more going on than meets the eye, and individuals may be dealing with personal or professional issues that may have nothing to do with you.
Exchange skills with your older direct reports – learn from them. It may be obvious, but the longer we live and the more we do, the more knowledge and experience we gain. While knowledge also comes from books, intuition and mentorship – experience still counts big time. If you are a millennial leader, don't be afraid to hire people who are older than you, people who are more experienced than you, and people who are better qualified than you. It’s likely if they wanted your job they would already have it so please just relax and listen to them. Don't let your own insecurity or fear for your job prevent you from working with talented people. They have a strong potential to be fierce allies and can help you learn and grow too. This is true of my most trusted advisor in my current job and I would not know what to do without her.
Reach down to other younger colleagues. If you are going to reach up, don’t forget to reach down. We are never qualified for our next career jump. Somebody needs to believe in us and give us a chance. Offer your experience to your younger colleagues. Give back. I am where I am because two amazing leaders gave me two incredible opportunities. The organization I was with invested in me significantly and made the person I am today. Over 5 years I had 4 different jobs with seven different bosses in two provinces. I am so grateful they took a chance on me and gave me the the opportunity to fail, learn, succeed and grow. There is nothing more important than knowing that someone great believes in you. Remember, you also may be working for your younger colleagues one day! I for one am convinced that a decent percentage of the folks junior to me in my department will one day rule the world. I hope they remember me then.
There are many clichés about age and I’ll try not to inundate you with them at the end of this article. I will say that I learned a long time ago that labels disable. Don’t judge people by their age and please don’t discriminate against them. When you do run into age-related issues in the workplace, have an open and honest dialogue with the person and create a teachable moment - for you both. See if you can better understand where they are coming from. Use your allies in human resources, if you have them, or your very wonderful and supportive boss to help resolve the situation. Remember, we are all just humans and in the grand scheme of the age of the universe a ten-year age gap is nothing to write home to mom about. Our sector is too busy saving the world to get too bogged down in age-related distractions.
Leanne Morgan has been working in the non-profit and public sector for the 12 years. She has had the privilege to work for the Canadian Cancer Society, the Canadian Diabetes Association and other leading charities including Community Living and Special Olympics. Throughout her career Leanne has worked with talented project teams and has shared in receiving the Dietitians of Canada’s Speaking of Healthy Eating: Excellence in Consumer Communication Award and the 3M Health Care Quality Team Award. If you want to learn more about Leanne or are interested in collaborating with her connect on LinkedIn. If you would like to see poorly styled photos of food and some general silliness, consider following her on Instagram.