The High-Tech Career Handbook
|A weekly ComputorEdge Column by Douglas E. Welch|
September 3, 2004
While a recent lawsuit
against Google may have brought the news to the forefront, age discrimination
in the workplace is one of the more troublesome issues facing high-tech
careerists today. Much like television, advertising and film,
high-tech companies have begun worshipping at the altar of youth, both
in the focus of their business and the makeup of their staff. While young
staffers certainly bring interesting thoughts to the table, the older
members of your staff have an important role to play, too. Without them,
you might doom your younger staffers to a reputation of past failures
instead of using your “elders” experience to lead your company
to new heights of innovation.
Too often, older staffers are seen as roadblocks
to innovation. No one wants the “fuddy-duddys” slowing down
the manic race to market with “The Next Big Thing!” Unfortunately,
obstructionism isn’t the sole purview of older workers. I have seen
plenty of younger staffers, eager to protect their turf, bring projects
to a grinding halt. Any obstructionism, regardless of the age of the employee,
should be dealt with swiftly and decisively.
The fact is, , older workers can help to champion
new projects. Many would find it invigorating to work on a “WOW!
Project” (to quote Tom Peters) and would give their all to be involved
in something that really matters again. Instead, they are relegated to
maintenance tasks, shut out of new project meetings and generally sent
out to pasture until they are forced in layoffs or fired outright. If
this sounds like your company, you might be putting roadblocks in the
way of your ultimate success by not making use of the experience of your
older employees in combination with the energy and new ideas of the younger
The most important role for older employees
is that of “cultural memory”. In their years working with
your company, and working in your industry, they have seen much. They
know what works, what doesn’t and exactly where projects stumble.
They can save new projects from the messy process of re-inventing the
wheel and get on the road to productivity.
Sometimes, thoughts about older employees bring
up memories of people saying, “that will never work,” or “we
tried that and failed.” Their role is quite different today, though.
These older employees can be focused on roadblocks that got in their way
and how they were conquered. Perhaps they ran into a dead-end on another
project that is similar to a current one. Not only can they offer a warning,
they can provide insight on how they overcame the problem. Imagine a project
where blind-alleys and dead-ends could be minimized. How much more productive
could your staff be when they have years of cultural memory on their side?
Losing these workers to layoffs or firings, based only on their age and
an ill-advised attempt to save on salaries, would be tantamount to burning
your company archives because they took up too much space.
Speaking of archives, I have a personal experience that points up the necessity of honoring what has come before and using it to grow your company in the future. When working for Walt Disney Imagineering, I was introduced to the art library there. This collection contained designs, sketches and finished artwork from the first inklings of Disneyland to the present. Each and every day, Imagineers scoured this resource for new ideas and hints about how design and engineering problems were solved in the past. The artists at Disney, young and old, saw this as an important, even essential resource for their work. They didn’t turn up their noses in disdain thinking, “there is nothing I can learn from these old guys.” They understood the cultural memory contained within those archives and how it could lead them to even greater heights in the future.
How are you treating your older employees? Are you treating them like the treasured resource they are, or old horses turned out to pasture with no possible usefulness beyond repairing ancient code and putting systems back together when they fall apart? Making hiring and firing decisions based only on someone’s age is a short-sighted, and ultimately damaging, to you, your employees and your company. Don’t “burn your archives.” It is up to you to make use of your employees’ knowledge, not squander it in some mis-guided adoration of youth.
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