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.