How Mentoring Can Tackle Ageism in the Workplace

In this article, we explore how a mentoring scheme that addresses misconceptions and breaks down stereotypes can help tackle ageism in the workplace.

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From the time they start their new role, most employees are committed to putting their best foot forward. This means not only getting to grips with what’s expected of them but also making the best impression on their new colleagues. As new employees acclimate to their environment they’ll encounter certain values, opinions and informal hierarchies amongst people from various different backgrounds.

This “getting to know you” phase is challenging and often stressful, especially when someone feels that they don’t fit into the “right box” in terms of what co-workers expect of them. New employees may be confronted with stereotypes that hinder their efforts to build respectful and productive working relationships, such as those based on age.

Ageism impacts employees on both spectrums of the age range, with older employees perhaps being seen as out of touch, having dated knowledge, or pushing for superiority. In comparison, younger employees may find themselves being treated as if they don’t know what they are doing or that they lack experience. Ultimately, ageism limits our ability to learn from other people and expand our horizons, which is key to an enriching work environment. When we feel accepted, we do our best work and when we don’t, we feel alienated, demoralised and unmotivated.

Mentoring programs can become a powerful tool for breaking down personal and professional barriers to create a more inclusive workplace. 89% of people with mentors believe their colleagues value their work, and 87% of mentors and mentees feel empowered and more confident through the mentoring process. Furthermore, 67% of businesses reported an increase in productivity as a direct result of their mentorship programs.

These programs are a way of forming powerful, reciprocal relationships that foster understanding and acceptance. They work to support a workplace culture where differences are used as opportunities to learn and grow rather than cause division.

Designing a mentoring program that addresses age-related stereotypes

Most of us can easily recall an instance of ageism - a moment when we were dismissed because we were ‘too young’ or ‘too old’ to have our input valued. Rather than discussing the stereotypes themselves in too much detail, let’s look at how leaders can use mentoring to build one-on-one relationships that directly address age-related misconceptions.

Know what your people have to offer

Get to know each team member not just in terms of what they offer as an employee, but how they can contribute to a fulfilling relationship between a mentor and mentee. Ask them about their life experiences, values and ambitions so you can identify which employees, be they older or younger, can find common ground on which to build a successful relationship.

When we don’t truly know or understand a person, there’s a risk of filling the gaps with assumptions based on stereotypes. If you don’t take the time to ask, how else would you know, for example, that an older person has a wealth of knowledge on social media or that a younger employee has the charisma and people skills to lead a successful team? Knowledge of who someone is and where their strengths are is one of the most effective means of showing that these stereotypes just don’t apply in the real world.

Consider the dynamic between mentor and mentee

For mentoring schemes to be successful in breaking down stereotypes, there has to be a two-way approach to learning. After all, everyone has something to offer and something to learn. Be sure not to fall into the trap of always making older employees the mentor, as this in itself reinforces age-related stereotypes. Instead, assign roles based on individual strengths and learning opportunities while focussing on having different age groups interact. Stereotypes are vague and generalised, so get people to learn about and from one another so that colleagues understand each other as fully-rounded individuals.

Switch up roles to help develop leadership skills

When companies examine their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) strategy, leadership is often the first place they start looking. Ageism can work in two ways to prevent people from assuming positions of leadership: whereas older people could be seen as more ‘set in their ways’ and therefore less suited for dynamic roles, younger people are stereotyped as immature or inexperienced. When taking on the role of mentor, many people will relish the opportunity to lead, teach and instruct.

Assign the initial roles of ‘mentor’ and ‘mentee’ for a set period, then shake it up. Switching up the roles will help build on existing working relationships and ensure mutual respect. By having younger employees mentor older employees (and vice-versa), team members learn the value of each other’s place on the team, regardless of age.

Don’t think about it as coaching

While ultimately you do want your team to perform better, this shouldn’t be as formal and goal-orientated as a coaching process overseen by a supervisor. This is about forming connections based on understanding as well as personal and professional capabilities. You want to build long-term relationships where people of different ages learn to second-guess their initial assumptions and critically examine why they hold certain biases.

Provide mentorship training and structure

You must set clear goals and a foundation for your mentoring program, so all participants understand how to mentor, what it means to be a mentor, and what the aim of the program is. While mentorships can become lifelong, you want to create an initial structure for the basic program that your team can follow. This invites people to participate and define whether it will be a one-on-one, group, or project-based program. It should also set aside time for mentors and mentees to meet and outline how long the formal mentorship will last. Finally, supervisors should get feedback from mentors and mentees. This can then be used to refine your program should you want to incorporate this model into other DEI initiatives.

Be prepared to manage conflict

The supervisory role in a mentoring program is largely a hands-off one, but when you are dealing with individuals there is always a natural risk of conflict. This is especially true when you are trying to break down barriers like stereotypes which people may have held for decades or even their entire lifetime. Mentors will also push mentees out of their conflict zone and challenge notions about age-related stereotypes, which can feel like negative criticism. Therefore, mentors need to be trained to deal with this sensitively and to call in a supervisor to resolve conflict before it damages the relationship and learning process.

Celebrate your mentee’s wins

Mentors ultimately teach mentees confidence, broadening their minds and helping them learn new skills. Every win deserves acknowledgement, and this will reinforce the bond between mentor and mentee whilst also increasing workplace morale as a whole. One-on-one and public praise is a great way to start, demonstrating to your team the power of mentoring to make them confident and engaged employees. Studies have also shown that reward and recognition foster a sense of belonging, which is crucial to creating an inclusive workplace.

Ageism is not unique to any sector, business, or industry – and as such, it’s likely to affect us all at some stage in our careers. But through an active mentorship program that works to create common ground, foster trust and pass on skills, every business has the ability to break down this barrier. Ultimately, this process helps to make your workplace a more inclusive, vibrant, and productive space for everyone.

Author Bio

Joe Caccavale is Content Manager at Applied, a recruitment software company. Applied specialises in tools that remove unconscious bias from the hiring process, so organisations can hire the best person for the job regardless of their background.

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