How Can We Best Utilize (and Manage) Older Employees?

With my 40th birthday looming at the end of June, aging is on my mind. My next birthday is a fact that my boss, Roger, who is 60, likes to remind me of. When I turned 39 last year, he couldn’t let me enjoy the last year of my 30s without getting in a playful jab that I was, essentially, already 40.

So, when I saw an article from Australia about age discrimination in that country, I started wondering about my own fate, and how best to manage Roger. Unlike many (or at least some) 60-year-olds, he is not technologically savvy. Also unlike many others of his same age group, he is loath to admit it. He reminds me of the stories I’ve heard about adults who don’t know how to read, and will go to great pains to hide their illiteracy.

For example, last week an updated version of our Website went live. The update included social media sharing icons under the excerpts that feature article headlines and synopses. It seemed that Roger didn’t know what they were, and thought the appearance of these mysterious symbols was an error. Mark, the co-worker who serves as our liaison to the technical team, mentioned that Roger wanted him to get rid of the social media icons. I thought that was strange, and so I said, within earshot of Roger: “Oh, that doesn’t make any sense. He probably doesn’t know what they are. You might have to explain it to him.” Maybe not the best way for me to handle that one, but, sure enough, as soon as I got off the phone with Mark, Roger came over to my desk and let me know he had no recollection of ever requesting that the social media sharing icons be removed. That may be true, but I think the likelier scenario is he was embarrassed and trying to cover up a huge sign of technological/21st century life illiteracy. I could go on and on about the technological illiteracy of my older colleagues, but I’ll offer just one more: Roger, and another colleague around his age, had never heard of before. They had no idea what it was.

Technological illiteracy can be cute, but actually not that cute when the technologically illiterate are managing you. It quickly becomes a case of the blind leading the sighted.

Older employees have important knowledge in their field, and significant life lessons under their belt, to share with younger, less experienced colleagues, but they also have to be managed and guided. Just as you might guide younger employees on how best to comport themselves in business meetings or negotiations, an older employee might need to be educated about technological advancements.

What do you think about having all employees (to avoid discrimination) complete a technological literacy test every few years? The test would include questions and/or hands-on work on all the online or software systems they need to be familiar with to do their jobs, along with questions that gauge literacy in social media and other online and mobile technology? In an age when nearly every job is affected by the digital world, even those who manage a team (without doing hands-on work themselves) need a high degree of familiarity.

The challenge is some managers, who are not technologically savvy yet manage a group of employees who work primarily online, are hostile about learning basic things about technological platforms and social media. “That’s what you’re here for,” or “That’s not my job,” they may retort. The trainer and the manager’s manager need to be taught that it’s OK, and even a good idea, to say in response: “Yes, but you’re the decision-maker and leader of a group of people who work almost solely online (or within a technological platform). Not fully understanding the technology results in you often asking them to do things that are not possible, or that wouldn’t make sense based on how our customers use the technology.”

Trainers can help shape a corporate culture and system that ensures mid-level and entry-level employees are spared the experience of taking instructions from a person who doesn’t understand the technology—the logistics—of completing and implementing projects.

At the same time, you never want to be in a position of carelessly discarding the wisdom of older employees. One way to make learning the technology and online environments more fun and respectful for older employees is to create a Website or intranet platform where employees who have been with the company, or in your industry, for at least 20 years, are required to visit to share their expertise, experiences, and field questions from co-workers. That way, you’re acknowledging the value and respect you have for their knowledge and expertise while also having them learn a new technology and new way of communicating.

You also could set up a public Facebook page for older employees to share their thoughts and field questions from others in the profession. Those they manage will quickly see how much fun it is “liking” their boss’ comments.

How do you ensure older employees are as technologically literate as they need to be to manage a team working in an online and mobile technology environment?

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