How to Handle 'You're Young Enough to Be My Kid'

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A majority of American executives will be eligible for retirement in the next five years, and as baby boomers gradually leave the workforce, so too will their attitudes, leadership styles, and management practices, giving way to the 80 million millennials who will take their places.

In her new book, Becoming the Boss:  New Rules for the Next Generation of Leaders (HarperBusiness, 2014), Lindsey Pollak provides advice to those newly-minted millennial managers. Some rules of leadership never change -- confidence, intelligence, ethics, etc. -- Pollak touches on this timeless advice while delving into the new challenges tomorrow’s leaders will face.

In this edited excerpt, Pollak discusses how best to handle the “you’re young enough to be my daughter/son/grandchild,” scenario, when a young professional finds his or her age, and consequently aptitude, being questioned in the workplace.

No matter how expertly you manage your personal leadership brand, occasionally you will not be perceived the way you want.

Well into my 30s and established as a business owner, I was invited to appear as an expert at a client’s trade show booth during a financial services industry conference. I was wearing a conservative navy blue suit, tasteful jewelry and makeup, and professionally-styled hair.

During some downtime, a man working in the next booth came over to introduce himself and chat. He asked about my business, I asked about his, we exchanged cards. Then as the conference attendees began returning to the trade show area, I said I had to get back to work.

Related: Why Generations Clash at Work

“Of course,” he said, “It was nice to meet you.” And then, before turning to go, he reached out, touched a fingertip to the end of my nose and said, “Boop!”

Yes, this actually happened to me!

What do you do if you find yourself in a similar situation, being treated like a child when you’re at work? After recovering from the initial shock, I believe you have three options:

Ignore it

This is the option I chose following the boop and here’s why: the booper was significantly older (in his 60s or 70s), the action was inappropriate but not aggressive, no one else was around to witness it, and I would likely never see the guy again.

Deflect it

Deflection is usually your best option when someone treats you like a child in front of other people. Your goal with deflection is to appear polite but firm, and not to let the comment or action undermine your authority.

For example, several years ago I attended a dinner at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York with fellow contributors to a magazine, who were all amazing writers and businesspeople I couldn’t wait to meet. An owner of the magazine moderated a discussion among the guests. One by one, he asked each person about his or her work, upcoming book topics, opinions on current events, and so forth. When he got to me, he said:

"Well, Lindsey, you just look so young! I suppose my only question to you is, just how young are you?"

I have no doubt I turned bright red and that everyone in the room felt a knot in their stomachs wondering how I would handle the question. Thankfully, I’d had some media training that taught me how politicians use deflection when they don’t want to answer an interviewer’s question.

Related: 4 Ways to Overcome Age-Related Tension in the Office

So I smiled politely (but not too politely) and said, “That’s a question I didn’t expect! I’d actually love to tell you about a new book project I’m now researching ...” Then I launched into the topic I wanted to discuss.

Deflection allows you to maintain your professionalism and authority while not embarrassing the other person publicly. If you know you look particularly young and these types of comments are likely to occur, it’s a good idea to have your “pivot” ready and be prepared to talk about your desired topic instead of your age.

Confront it

If comments about your youth are happening over and over again with the same colleague or client -- or worse, someone who reports to you -- then you might decide to address the situation directly.

Note that confronting the situation doesn’t have to mean being confrontational. It’s just that sometimes the only way to stop a behavior is to call it out. In some cases, you may even find that the perpetrator really doesn’t mean any harm and would be happy to stop if asked.

I’d pick a casual moment when you are alone with the person and say something like, “So I’m not sure if you even notice that you’re doing it, but you’ve made a few negative comments lately in front of our team about my age. I’d really appreciate it if you could stop doing that.”

If the comments persist, here is another tactic to try, again in a private moment: “I’ve noticed you’re still mentioning my age in meetings and conference calls. I’d love your input on whether I’m doing anything that makes me appear young or inexperienced? I wouldn’t want this perception to affect the entire team.”

Remember to keep your requests short, polite and non-accusatory. A sense of humor usually helps, too. If the comments continue to persist, then I would take that as an indication that you are simply working with a jerk who probably makes negative comments about a lot of different things to irritate a lot of different people. In this case, most people probably won’t give this person’s comments much weight and your best option to is to go back to ignoring them.

If the comments become aggressive or offensive, or begin to compromise your ability to get your job done, then a discussion with your HR department, boss or board is also an option.

Have you ever been in this situation? How did you handle it? Let us know in the comments section below.

Related: How Young Entrepreneurs Can Bridge the Generation Gap