Is there age bias in your workplace? These simple exercises will tell you

Multigenerational commuting.
Multigenerational commuting.
Image: Reuters/Hannah McKay
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

There’s no denying it. What the author Carl Honoré calls the “grim downbeat narrative” about aging that permeates most cultures is also alive in the workplace. We’re prone to believe, erroneously, that only the young are creative and agile in the their thinking, while the old (or merely older) risk being labeled “dead wood.”

The stereotypes translate into age discrimination in hiring and layoff practices, which in the US have become a more frequent topic of lawsuits—and emotional angst. And the same story is playing out in other countries where, as in the US, the workforce is aging.

But companies are finally recognizing that this has to change, and that rampant ageism, like sexism and racism, will not be quashed without some structural interventions. The software analytics company SAP, for example, employs a “global lead of cross-generational intelligence.” The position is held by Annice Joseph, who is based in Bangalore. Meeting counterparts at other companies is still rare, she says, but she believes the role is becoming somewhat more common in diversity departments, especially at globe-spanning multinationals.

Part of Joseph’s mandate is to develop policies that support all five generations within SAP’s workforce of nearly 100,000. For example, the company encourages two-way mentoring, and allows workers at any stage of life to choose the flex hours that fit their needs.

The other part of her job involves running awareness workshops about ageism with employees and managers. In a recent conversation with Quartz at Work, she shared a few of the exercises that she says have resonated most with SAP employees.

Who are your friends?

In one exercise, Joseph and her team ask employees to raise their hand if they have friends from all five generations, then from four generations, then only three, etc. Only one guideline is enforced: “Unless you’re truly a buddy with an older relative, don’t call them a friend,” says Joseph. Most people can’t honestly claim to have pals across the entire range, she says.

“What people recognize from even that simple exercise is that very often we like to hang out with people from our own age groups, or a few friends who are little older,” says Joseph. “But in the workplace, it’s important to collaborate across all generations.”

Sometimes she’ll also ask, “Who did you have lunch with today? Who did you meet for coffee?” Employees usually come to see that they generally don’t reach out consciously to connect with people who are not part of their generation, and typically only share meals with much older or much younger peers when “lunch” is actually a team meeting.

What does your generation care about?

Perhaps the most robust, universal myths about generations are connected to questions of identity. You know, Gen-Xers are said to be cynical and self-protective, while millennials are ready to change the world, et cetera.

Joseph chips away at these ideas with an exercise that asks employees to form groups by generation and brainstorm a list of the values, fears, and motivations that drive them. The various groups are asked not to speak to each other as they brainstorm. When everyone comes back together and compares responses on a whiteboard, they inevitably discover that at least five or six commonalities exist across every cohort, says Joseph.

To be fair, it’s possible that everyone is choosing the answers that are expected of “good employees”—or that we’ve come to believe certain generational stereotypes because the media has put too much emphasis on random, contradictory surveys.

SAP employees also discuss major world events—like the first moon landing, the arrival of the internet, 9/11, or the milestone election of a young prime minister—and trends in fashion, music, and other forms of culture that have shaped their generation’s attitudes, expectations, and belief systems. Naturally, they learn again how unpredictable forces have driven change in similar ways in more than one era.

“Fashion, in particular, is very interesting because people make judgments based on how others dress,” says Joseph. And yet, “the moment you bring this up with people across different generations, you realize that fashion has cycles. People across different groups are able to identify commonalities and in turn, establish an appreciation and understanding for each other.”

How do you like to communicate?

Communication etiquette may be one way of being with each other that indeed is informed by generational norms and trends in technology. A phone call that seems perfectly appropriate to a baby boomer comes off as downright rude and presumptuous to a younger colleague who grew up with texting and email. As it happens, Quartz at Work discovered several differences in communication styles when members of our mixed-generation team wrote “user manuals” as a group experiment two years ago.

In her training exercises, Joseph asks SAP colleagues to unpack differences in communication and collaboration styles that are common to various generations. It’s a key point of friction in some countries, especially in places where old norms about age and seniority outside of work still prevail. Inside corporations, says Joseph, “age is no longer directly proportional to your position in the company; you can be any age and hold any job.” And yet it can all work out if people feel respected.

“One of the biggest eye-openers for us is that the minute you bring the teams together, it’s much easier to deal with differences, because the differences will be there anyway,” says Joseph. “And we tell them, ‘That’s why we want you here. We don’t want people who are clones of each other.'”