From the August 2011 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

Forewarned Is Forearmed

Age discrimination is one of the biggest challenges facing young advisors

I recently had an employee of one of my client firms come to me about a situation she had encountered. Amy, I'll call her, was at a networking event for financial advisors where everyone had just taken their seats around a large table. Each advisor was introducing him- or herself in turn with a brief description of what they and their firms do. Amy's a good-looking woman in her early 30s, but looks five or so years younger than that. She had barely gotten her name out when an older woman sitting next to her blurted out: "Unlike this spring chicken, we work with high-net-worth clients in areas a lot more complicated than budgeting." Amy was dumbfounded by the rude attack, and barely regained enough composure to simply state the name of her firm, and pass the floor to the next advisor. But, a week later she still was bothered enough by the incident and her response to ask me what I thought she should have done.

As a relatively young woman myself, who's been in the advisory industry for 10 years now, I've experienced incidents like Amy's more times than I care to remember, and have heard about many others involving young advisors of both sexes. The common term for this type of behavior is "reverse age discrimination." While much of society's attention is focused on unfair actions taken against older people, we often overlook the fact that younger people are frequently subjected to prejudicial judgments (some merited, many not) based solely on their age.

Now, don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that younger people in the workplace don't have their issues. Some tend to undervalue experience more than they should and often labor under the illusion that they know more than they really do. But as with any large group, preconceived notions about younger people based on our age, or the age we look, are often wrong in specific cases, and, in addition to being annoying, can be damaging to working relationships. I spend some of my time reminding my older advisor/clients to try to judge people as individuals (as they did me), but I've come to realize that it's more valuable for me to work with younger folks on how to better stand up for themselves.

In Amy's case, and cases like it, the first decision young people need to make is whether a direct response is warranted. My personality is such that I almost always feel direct action is called for, and that's the choice I usually make. But my way is not always the best way and in some situations, such as a group setting where an older person has made a comment so over the top as to make themselves look like a jerk, no further comment is necessary. Amy's situation probably fell into this category, and her response to simply continue may well have underscored the rudeness of the inappropriate attack.

However, if you do decide that a response is called for, you still have some choices: a direct response or, often more effective, an indirect response. Amy's best response probably would have been to ignore the comment and proceed with her self-introduction, pointing out that while she may look young, she's actually been an advisor for 10 years, the last eight of which were as a lead advisor working with her own high-net-worth clients, who average in excess of $2 million in AUM and for whom she provides sophisticated alternative investment strategies, estate planning and trust services. In the nicest possible way, of course.

The reason Amy wasn't able to deliver such a withering non-response is that she was caught by surprise. Which brings me to my primary advice to younger advisors: Be prepared. While prejudice and discrimination are unfair and annoying, they are not unpredictable. As young, successful professionals, you have to admit that you're quite different from most of your peers. Sure, sometimes it pains you to get lumped in with the rest of those slackers, but it's not a completely off-base assumption—it's just wrong in your case. And to the extent that you can calmly, professionally set the record straight that you don't fall into whatever dismal view some older person may have of the next generation, the more respect you'll gain.

To do so, you need to have a prepared response, or at least have thought about how you'll respond when some over-the-hill advisor makes a lame comment about your age. Acknowledge that you're young or look young (no point in trying to deny it), and point out how lucky you've been to have had such a great education, to have known what career you wanted at such a young age, to have worked with such great older people who taught you so much, to have such broad experience so early in your career, or whatever your unique experience is that qualifies you to be a full-fledged advisor at such a young age. Remember, it is unusual for a young person to be so successful, so it's not unfair for someone to ask you about it; use that opportunity to tell them how really great you are. It would be a career maker for anyone to have written the DOS software that launched the PC revolution; it says even more about Bill Gates that he wrote it while he was still in college.

Once you have your response to the age question firmly in mind, the key is knowing when—and how—to use it. Naturally, you don't want to go spouting off about how great you are in every conversation. Another employee of one of my clients, who I'll call Jane, was asked by one of her firm's clients to give a presentation to a foundation board that he sat on. After she finished talking about how she and her firm managed investment portfolios, an older gentleman in the back of the room stood up and said, "That was a nice presentation, but how old are you?"

Again, Jane was taken aback, and simply blurted out "31." Although her client was very happy with her overall performance, Jane went home feeling beaten up and defeated. She was, of course, unprepared. But she also failed to listen to the question behind the question. While he put it crudely, the crusty gentleman was actually raising a very legitimate concern: How did her experience stack up against the other investment firms vying to manage the foundation's portfolio?

Rather than viewing the question as an attack, Jane would have done better to view it as an opportunity to talk about her experience and expertise, the expertise of the other advisors in the firm and the firm's investment results. Again, how we view seemingly critical comments has a lot to do with our success as professionals and as people. In this case, the question wasn't out of left field: Like many clients, foundations tend to take their choice of investment advisors very seriously. If your mother's brain surgeon looked like he was 20, you'd probably ask about his experience, too. And if he were good, he'd have a good answer.

Finally, anticipating the age question can lead to even broader strategies. For instance, over the years I've realized that I almost never close clients whom I meet cold at conferences. I've come to realize that as a young, tall, blonde woman, many people reach a conclusion about me before they listen to a word I say. So, I've learned to skip the networking sessions, instead focusing on conferences where I can get a speaking slot: If people have to listen to me for 45 minutes or so, they usually realize that I'm more than a cute kid. Writing this column helps, too.

I also give most of my client pitches over the phone, or even in emails, because I've learned that if I can get advisors to really listen to me first, they usually like what they hear. Then the shock of a young, blue-eyed blonde doesn't have the same impact. I often recommend this same strategy to young advisors when they are meeting with prospective clients or even starting to work with existing clients of their firm: If you can talk to them on the phone first and impress them with your expertise, demeanor or whatever you have to impress them with, you can head off a lot of the age issues before they become an issue. But if it doesn't, be sure to view the age question as an opportunity. Point is, when someone gives you an opportunity to make it all about you—take it.

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