am I being ageist toward my older employee?

A reader writes:

I work at a job where I manage several remote contract workers. It’s my first time managing this many people and I really enjoy it. However, I have one person who I get periodically frustrated with, and she happens to be the oldest person I manage. She’s probably at least in her 60s, if I had to guess.

She does pretty good work when I push her, but it doesn’t come easily. I have to ask her repeatedly to follow instructions that seem to come a lot easier to my other employees. The job involves writing, and she complains that she can’t come up with ideas to write about, but when I send out content ideas to all my writers she never takes any of them.

With any other writer I wouldn’t let this slide, but there are two factors keeping me from parting ways with this one: One, every time I’ve express disappointment in her work, she’s told me pretty dire things like “I’m desperate for this job” and “This is my only source of income.” One time, payment was a little late and she said that if she wasn’t paid soon, she wouldn’t have any money in her account (I used to be a freelancer so I know the struggle, but I also had more than one gig). And making all of this worse, she recently experienced a really sudden death of a close family member. I can’t hear these things and not be affected by it.

Second, I worry that some of my frustrations have to do with ageism. The fact is that my other younger writers (some are millennial aged, like I am, while others are in their 40s) are more responsive via email, better at using digital tools, and just better at writing for the internet. They are more nimble and versatile, and they take direction well. With this other writer, I feel like everything comes so much harder, but I wonder if it’s because the other writers and I are at the same pace because we are closer in age, and that I just need to be more patient.

This employee is really sweet, and like I said, she can do good work sometimes. But I get really frustrated and I feel like if things got worse with her performance, I’d never be able to sever ties because I’d feel too bad.

How should I manage this employee without letting my emotions or ageism get in the way? Help!

You can read my answer to this letter at New York Magazine today. Head over there to read it.

{ 257 comments… read them below }

  1. MuseumChick

    I want to send this to every person who has ever disparaged the “lazy, entitled, doesn’t want to work for a living” millennial generation. Good, bad, and mediocre workers from in every shape, size, color, gender, religion, age etc.

    It sounds like you simple have an employee who is not doing a very good job. Maybe ask yourself this, would you react differently to her if she were 10, 20, 30 years younger?

    1. CR

      I think people mistakenly think “millenials” are fresh out of high school and therefore incompetent. I’m 33, technically a millennial, and I’ve been working full time for 10 years!

      1. MuseumChick

        I’m just a few years younger than you, so also a millennial. The only time I haven’t had a paying job was for a few years in collection. And even then it was because I was involved in a bunch on on campus activities.

        Something about this lettering really struck a cord with me. Working in museums I’ve had the opportunity to work with wonderful volunteers over the years. And pretty consistently the the volunteers most willing to learn new skills, listen and take direction well, and respond well to feed back are the high school and college students. I’ve found those most resistant to taking feedback and taking direction are the retirees!

        1. Washi

          As a former volunteer coordinator, I’ve found that as well! And it’s not because Baby Boomers as an entire generation don’t like to take direction, just like Millenials aren’t all incompetent. It’s that young people (today’s younger millennials) are likely to be not very experienced in the workforce and exhibit traits that all people exhibit when they have little experience, and older people are likely to have developed strong opinions nd habits over the course of their lifetime.

          There’s a great article about this on Slate, which OP might enjoy reading to reassure herself that she can hold workers to the same standard, regardless of age: https://slate.com/technology/2018/04/the-evidence-behind-generations-is-lacking.html

        2. Millennium

          I think most people agree that young people are easier to teach and they’re much faster to get new things explained to them.

          1. soon to be former fed

            Wow , this thread is really bashing us mature workers. This is another untrue stereotype. Live long enough and you’ll see for yourself. I wish Alison would stop it.

            1. DArcy

              I don’t think it’s “bashing” mature workers at all to point out that younger workers tend to be faster learners, any more than it would be “bashing” younger workers to point out that older workers tend to have more previous experience.

            2. CountEveryStar

              I don’t see the comment as “bashing”. It’s not even in the same tone as a lot of “mature workers” talk about millennials and how they are entitled and lazy.

          2. Anonymoose

            Ooooh, ya, nope. Let’s take my most recent new hire. Young, bright eyed, but software is really difficult for her instinctually. But she has great other skills we would like to learn. Then there is my mom who could school me in most software programs (and I’ve been working with computers for 30 years.) and do so embarrassingly fast. So, no, you can’t just decide that someone isn’t capable just because they’re a certain age.

      2. Kat G., Ph.D.

        Agreed! Some of my parents’ friends and my older relatives like to complain about millennials, and I’m always like, uh, you know you’re talking about ME, right? That shuts things down pretty quickly.

          1. Tricksy Hobbit

            Yes, exactly! It reminds me of the song from Bye, Bye Birdie, “What’s the matter with kids today,… why can they be more like we were… perfect in every way?” Because of course the Baby Boomers NEVER rebelled or did anything of the like… :-)

            No seriously, OP, this issue is that she may have a difficult time taking instructions, because of your age. I think if you focus on her productivity, and treat everyone the same, I think you’ll be ok.

            1. Screenwriter

              I’m not sure if this is what you meant, but the “kids” being referred to in Bye Bye Birdie WERE the Baby Boomers

          2. Lady at Liberty

            Whenever my dad starts getting snarly about those millennials, I remind him that a) born in 1984, so it me, and b) who exactly raised us to believe all these things you kvetch about?

          3. Wintermute

            exactly! those much-derided “participation trophies” weren’t for US… we were 7 and we didn’t care, they were for mommy and daddy who couldn’t bear the thought that their little kid wasn’t god’s gift to the world because he came from THEM! Don’t they know whose kid that is? of course he’s important!

      3. Tea cup gal

        I’m 36 with 20 years experience in my field and under some definitions I’m considered a millennial!

        1. Snark

          I prefer to regard us 33-36 year olds as part of a very special group called the Oregon Trail cohort – a very special group whose best friends died of cholera just before we made it to Ft. Laramie. In green-and-black monochrome. We’ve seen some shit.

          1. General Ginger

            Oh, I like that. Definitely going to start using it; it’s much better than going, “well, I’m 36 and by some definitions I fall into…” etc.

          2. RadManCF

            You could possibly extend the age brackets down a bit; I’m 30 and I spent a fair amount of time playing Oregon Trail on the IIgs. My elementary school didn’t see fit to buy PC’s until 1997-98 or so, and the IIgs wasn’t OOP until 1992. They did spring for color monitors though, so that was nice. Ultimate point being that the Apple II version of Oregon Trail is part of the experience of a wider age group than you had initially mentioned.

            1. Snark

              Maybe, but it’s kind of like how Old and Young Gen X are pretty different from each other – if you played OT in color, your life of comfort and privilege sets you apart from us monochromers.

              ….

              :D BAHAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAH

                1. FreezerBeer

                  What about E.S.S. (that’s Electronic Spreadsheet System for you youngins). I was a whiz at it in the late 1980’s and I’m a whiz at Excel in the present.

              1. TardyTardis

                How about Rags to Riches on the Commodore 64? And the glorious nine-page limits on a text file in Word Writer 3? (not to mention removing popcorn and a couple of pencils from the Star Microncs 9-pin printer on a fairly regular basis, Because Children?).

            2. depizan

              And up a bit. I turn 44 this year and Oregon Trail on good old Apple IIs was very much part of my grade school experience as well.

              (Holy moly. I just googled and Oregon Trail dates to 1974 and Apple IIs to 1977. The Oregon Trail generation is a lot bigger than expected!)

            1. Snark

              You never ford the river. Always caulk and float across, or just don’t be a cheapass and hire the ferry.

            2. Parenthetically

              NEVER ford the river. I mean unless you want little junior and the cow to eat it.

          3. JB (not in Houston)

            Ah, but many of us over-4os were also told in green-and-black monochrome that we had dysentery, so you’d have to widen the age of inclusion in that cohort.

            1. Snark

              Fair enough. If you played monochome OT – color is for candy-asses – you’re in.

              And I never died of cholera. It was always Dumbass and Asshole.

                1. Jessie the First (or second)

                  Anyone who doesn’t understand the importance of the pile of junk mail to getting the babble fish is a noob.

                  ;-)

            1. Former Employee

              I loved that show and Root was a really fascinating addition.

              Did they just stop because they couldn’t figure out how to untangle the the threads?

              By the way, I am part of the Boomer generation and the next generation in my family are Millenials. The kids are alright.

          4. What's with today, today?

            Yes!!! Love this. I’m 36, 15 years experience in my field. I’ve always hated the millennial tag because I certainly didn’t grow up with tech. I got my first cell phone at 17 (and it was as big as a house), only used the internet if my Mom wasn’t on the phone(and then only to troll teen chat rooms), and I got my first email address my freshman year of college!

            1. RadManCF

              I hate it too, for similar reasons. I’m generally a later adopter of consumer electronic technologies (I used a flip phone until fall of 16), I don’t use social media very often, and had an unusual upbringing that caused me to feel a stronger rapport with Gen Xers, rather than other millennials.

              1. Kate 2

                Yep! I grew up in a rural low-income area. No one had cell phones, I didn’t hear about Facebook until college, I had a flip phone my parents gave me for emergencies only at 16, and we had dial up internet only until about 10 years ago (companies wouldn’t run lines in our area, too few people to make it worth the cost).

                1. krysb

                  Oh, man. Where I grew up, there was only one spot in town where cell phones actually worked. They didn’t get any actual useful cell towers until after I graduated and moved away in 2003.

            2. Snark

              Yup. My dad had a cell phone in his Jeep that had its own wired handset and came in a case that sat on his center console. My first cell phone was a Nokia. Good times.

            3. Witty Nickname

              A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook asking what her friends liked most about being part of the generation they were in. My answer (technically gen X, but just barely – I’ll be 39 this year) was that I grew up without all the tech we have today (the day I got a dual CD/Cassette player was life changing!), but got it early enough to be able to adapt to it pretty easily. I did grow up with a PC from the time I was 7 or so, but we didn’t adopt other tech that early).

              1. Witty Nickname

                Ack, hit submit too soon. Anyway, I look at all of the tech my kids are growing up with, and it’s awesome how much easier their lives are in my ways because of it. But they will never know the life-changing experience that getting your first dual CD/Cassette player was, or how you had to video tape any tv shows you wanted to record instead of using the DVR or a streaming service, or how you had to rush to the restroom during a commercial break so you didn’t miss any of your show (or how you missed the most important part of the most important episode of your favorite show because your annoying little brother came wouldn’t stop talking to you, and you had to wait forever before it was on in syndication and you could watch it again…that may have just been me though). And part of me is sad they don’t get to experience those things. :)

                1. jackie

                  but they’ll have other life-changing experiences with new technology that hasn’t even been invented yet! :)

                2. Someone

                  Really? I grew up with a toy cassette player and my parents taking huge maps on trips and arguing all the way about where to go – left or right?!, oh now you missed the exit!, wait, where are we now?!, I didn’t see the sign!

              2. Kate 2

                I remember when I was old enough to get my first portable cassette player, then as a teen my first portable cd player. Traveling . . . with music?! Whoa! That was a really special thing, being grown up enough to be given something like that. I had my own little CD case, and I still remember the first CD I ever got. Ah memories.

            4. Bea

              I’m pushing 35 and my first cell phone was a Nokia at 19. However I was deeeeeeep into Yahoo Clubs in high school. I had dial up until 5 years ago and a slider phone until 3 years ago. So I’m all over the tech table.

              My bffs 16 yr old once told me I wouldn’t understand an app. “You know someone my age built that stupid thing, right?”

            5. CheeryO

              Yeah, I might be a weirdo, but I’m 28 and didn’t have non-dial-up internet or a cell phone until my late teens and didn’t have a smart phone until I was out of college. I feel like my cousins in the 18-22 range are closer to “true” millennials in that they truly grew up with technology, and they make me feel about a million years old.

              1. Bea

                I think it’s our parents possibly. Mine are older and like hell did they spend money on expensive technology.

                My first phone was when I bought one. We had a NES in the 90s and never ever updated to any other gaming system. Our computer was a Vic20 until I was in high school and my dad splurged on compac from Circuit City.

                We had dial up because of the middle if nowhere we lived.

              2. Julia

                I’ll be 29 next month and while I did have a cell phone in high school to reach my parents, we didn’t have internet at home until I entered college, and I got my first smart phone at 24.

              3. TardyTardis

                I’m in my 60’s, but got a 28.8 modem for an anniversary present, whee! And spent way too much time on a local BBS playing Red Dragon or Exitilus (which I won, once, but I could have written a better ending to blind drunk).

            6. TardyTardis

              We bought our youngest child a cell phone when she was in high school. She loved it! At least till she discovered we could call her and *find* her (no GPS, just a mommy’s voice asking when she planned to get home…).

          5. SoCalHR

            Actually, theres a ‘micro generation’ called xennials for the “Oregon trail generation” which is a cross between Gen X and Millennials, which I find personally accurate since I’m on the cusp.

          6. Kate 2

            Me too! I’ve also heard “Generation Catalono”, “The Lost Generation”, “Generation Y”, etc.

            1. SoCalHR

              my understanding is GenY is the same as Millennial and then Catalano = Oregon Trail = Xennials.

            2. Former Employee

              “The Los Generation” is the term often used to describe the generation that came of age during WWI. See Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” (fiction) and Vera Brittain’s “Testament of Youth” (non-fiction) for an idea of what their lives were like. I found the latter to be one of the most heart breaking things I have ever read.

          7. Kate 2

            Does anyone else remember spending hours talking to your friends on the phone, and having your parents yell at you to “Get off the phone!” and talk to you about the phone bill? I hear now that “kids these days” hate talking on the phone and love texting and I’m like “What the heck? Why?! It’s so much faster and easier than tapping at little buttons that sometimes don’t register, or register the wrong letter.”

            1. PSB

              I’m 41 and hate talking on the phone and would much rather text or email. I wasn’t big on long phone calls as a teen either. They’ve always made me feel trapped.

            2. Ask a Manager Post author

              That was me when I was a teenager, and I was so committed to talking on the phone without interruptions that I paid for my own phone line in my room. But these days … aside from work calls, I talk to my mom and my sister and my nieces, and I use email for everyone else. Unless it’s a big, complicated conversation, the phone just feels like such an inefficient way to exchange information now that we have email and texting.

              1. Elizabeth West

                I ask people to call me if it’s going to go over a few texts or gets complicated, because I have mild dyspraxia and it’s hard to type with my thumbs for any length of time. But then sometimes people abandon the conversation. :(

              2. PABJ

                Also, receiving calls is pretty disruptive. If I’m in the middle of something, sometimes it’s pretty annoying to have to drop it to answer the phone. For example, I work in a library and was getting a messy craft ready the other day when someone called me and I had to answer. It was bothersome.

            3. MuseumChick

              See I find email/text way faster for most things. Plus then if you forget something you can reference back to it. “What time did Jane say to meet her? Let me just scroll back to that text.”

              It can take a few calls to actually reach someone or you have to wait for them to call you back. Whereas with text, they can respond from almost anywhere.

              But that’s just my personal preference.

            4. Quake Johnson

              Funny, I find texting WAY faster. I process information a lot faster if I’m reading it, rather than having to listen and interpret it.

              Different learning styles, it seems.

              1. H.C.

                YES to the calling cards; my parents bought them by the Costco bundle when I went to college (a day’s drive away)

                1. Humble Schoolmarm

                  We had a “Call Me” card, basically a card that only dialled one number (ie. your parents). Kids having a plastic card of any kind in their wallets was pretty rare then and we flashed those things everywhere like they were Amex Black cards. In reality it was to get little us to check-in from the choir trip, but I still felt pretty cool.

              2. TootsNYC

                we had a party line when I was a kid.
                You want to talk about being told to get off the phone!
                (neener, neener)

                And when I went to college, the phones in our dorm rooms were extensions for an internal-only system; I had to BORROW A QUARTER to get a dial tone on the pay phone to call home collect!

                During my tenure there, the phone company converted them to your own phone lines that you paid for, and could make long-distance phones on. (which led to a lot of fraud)

                Talk about the excitement of living through a technology advance!

            5. hermit crab

              That was me as a teenager as well, and I’m turning 32 next week, so I’m solidly a millennial. (Though I’ve also only had a smartphone for about 6 months, so I’m a bit of a late adopter overall.) I still love long personal phone calls, but I am also so glad that email/IMing is a thing at work.

            6. Astor

              I think a fair bit of it has to do with the priority changes in call quality. The call quality on most wired phones is noticeably better than the call quality on most cordless phones, and the call quality on most cordless phones is noticeably better than on most mobile/cellular phones. And there are similar difficulties with VOIP and certain kinds of long-distance calls. The ubiquity of lower-quality connections mean that chances are good that most calls now are lower in quality than most calls in the 80s/90s.

              A lot of why I hate talking on the phone now because it’s much harder to hear (and be heard) than it used to be and because there are too many situations where I have to call a company even though I’d rather just email them than wait on hold. I say that I hate talking on the phone, and I do, but I also love talking on the phone like I did 20 years ago. Just, at the same time, texting, IMing, and email have become a lot more appropriate for a lot of conversations that only used to make sense by phone or letter.

              hmm, yes, I do have feelings about this :)

            7. Quoth the Raven

              I’m 31 and I hate talking on the phone, and there’s only a handful of people I will call willingly. And if I’m cold calling someone, or making a phone call that I think might get complex (like calling my bank, for example, in which case I’d rather got in person) I get very anxious.

              I actually prefer texts/email because you can always go back to them for the details and because they do allow me the chance to pace my replies — I don’t have to drop everything I’m doing because someone called.

            8. Cousin Itt

              Member of the dreaded Gen Z here! I personally find texting to be a much more nuanced way of communicating – not only can you retype/clarify your message if needed, but texting comes with its own set of meaningful linguistic touches, it’s not just a case of typing out what you would say out loud on the phone to someone.

          8. Tardigrade

            Somewhere I read that millennial was meant to refer to people who came of age in the aughts, which would be totally true of the Oregon Trail / Xennial cohort. We didn’t go grow up with current tech and smart phones in our hands, but we did grow up (as in develop at the same time) with it.

        2. GermanCoffeegirl

          I’ve seen those born between 1979 and 1985 also being referred as Xennials, since we’re a bit of a crossover-mix generation and don’t fit in the definition of either Gen X or Millennials.

      4. ThatGirl

        I’m 37 and apparently (according to Pew) a millennial. 15 years of experience. So… yeah.

      5. TootsNYC

        for many people, “millennial” means, not fresh out of high school, but fresh out of college.

        It’s the modern term for “kids these days.” (but not usually truly kids; just, beginners in the adult job market, so 21 through 28)

        Though that’s not what it really means.

    2. Stranger than fiction

      Excellent point. I can totally relate to the Op, because I have three coworkers who irritate the bejesus out of me and I thought I was being sgeist too. But they’re all three just coincidentally in their late fifties, and like Alison said, it’s just performance issues. I know plenty of people that age can pick up tech skills and remember the things you just taught them last week, but they cannot.
      They’re just lazy and complacent and that can come at any age.

    3. soon to be former fed

      This is indeed not an age issue, it is a performance issue. Your comment is unnecessarily harsh though. I have a millennial daughter who is one of the hardest working people I know, so to make this a generational thing o u t the gate is not useful. It also isn’t useful to come at the OP this way.

      1. MuseumChick

        Sorry, I’m really confused by your comment. I think my post was pretty clear I’m am against the stereotyping of generations.

  2. Akcipitrokulo

    It might also help to give more guidance about the prompts? Like send her a lot fewer, with note “I’d be really pleased if you’d tackle one of these” … or even “… tackle this one”.

    Maybe she just isn’t getting that she should be picking up on them if they are sent as an option? Which may be all others need, but she may need a push.

    1. Slow Gin Lizz

      This^. And then if she ignores your suggestion, you will have very concrete evidence to point to when you speak with her and/or let her go. Just because she’s older doesn’t mean she *should* need more help. My mom is in her 70s and still volunteers to write for arts orgs and local political candidates, without prompting.

      That said, is it possible that there’s some kind of age-related memory or cognitive issue here? Not trying to diagnose something, of course, but could there be a medical issue? If not, well, see Akci….’s advice above.

      1. Yorick

        I don’t think OP described any memory or cognitive problems, so it’s pretty inappropriate to diagnose someone with senility just because they’re old.

        1. Slow Gin Lizz

          Nope, I didn’t diagnose, I just offered it as a suggestion why there might be a problem.

          1. bolistoli

            Regardless, it doesn’t matter. Either she can improve or she can’t. If she can’t, no matter what the reason (especially because she’s a contract worker), the OP is well within her rights to let her go. It might not sound nice, but it would be the right thing to do.

            1. Slow Gin Lizz

              She might need medical accommodations, though. If she does, then that is another matter entirely. I still think Akcipitrokulo’s advice is useful.

              1. IsbenTakesTea

                Medical accommodations are only required if the employee discloses them–the employer is never obligated to ask. It also requires the employee to be able to perform the essential functions of the job with or without accommodation. Also, if she’s a true independent contractor, I don’t believe the same rules apply.

          2. Stranger than fiction

            Sure, it’s super common to become more forgetful with age, regardless of any diagnosed dimentia or whatnot.

      2. TardyTardis

        I’m in my 60’s and I passed my tax preparer’s test at 89% in December–a test which half the takers fail (passing is 75%). Plus at the office I did both by silver and gold certs in just the last month or so (granted, I just barely made it on the gold cert, I just don’t care enough about 1040NRs…).

        1. TardyTardis

          Cannot type this morning (last night was our last night for taxes, even though the IRS extended the deadline by a day because of their computers crashing). I meant *my* silver and gold certs.

  3. Ben

    Judge them all by the same standards—metrics are important in this case. Is she performing the job she was hired for? It’s a yes or no question not a No but or a Yes but question. Emotions not only cloud the judgement in these scenarios but they also give false hope and expectations.

    Have you “written her up” or had the “hard discussion” with her. Make sure that any discussion aimed at correcting areas that may be lacking in her product are documented. Age is only a factor if you make it a factor—while we need to be sympathetic to people that take different approaches than us, and we even need to be sympathetic to familial issues—if the work wasn’t up to snuff before her familial issues then it won’t be up to snuff after….Treat them all the same—if you would have terminated the “millenials” or the “40 year old” at this point for doing the same thing (or not doing the same thing as it may be) then you have your answer…..If you would have given the others another chance then you need to give this one another chance….Same Same—take age and emotion out of it.

  4. Jessie the First (or second)

    OP, when I hear phrases like “nimble” and “versatile,” I worry about ageism. Those are sometimes code words for “I don’t think this oldie fits in here.”

    But *you* are not using the words as code. You’ve pinpointed some specific shortcomings in her work and her process: she does not respond quickly, she has trouble coming up with ideas yet she does not take you up on the ideas you circulate, she does not take direction well. Focus on those specifics. You have real concerns, and they seem absolutely valid and work-related from here. The more you can get specific in your feedback, the better for your freelancer (she can, if she chooses, work on responding more quickly to emails, but it’s hard to improve when the feedback is “be more nimble”) and the better for you.

  5. Muriel Heslop

    OP, can you assign her a topic or tell her what to write about? In my English classes, I run across students who complain about the topics I assign, but then also can’t come up with something when I give them freedom (and I end up assigning them topics anyway.) Perhaps the flexible thinking or creativity is a challenge for her and you can help both of you by just telling her what you need to her to produce.

    Good luck! You sound like a thoughtful and caring manager.

    1. Snark

      I don’t get the impression that assigning topics or providing that level of hand-holding is really how their professional relationship works – they’re contractors, providing content on a freelance basis.

      1. Washi

        Yeah, this point has been repeated a couple times below, but based on this letter, it sounds like being really closely managed and spoonfed ideas like that might not be reasonable for the position. It sounds like the work of the writers is not just to churn out writing, but to think of ideas. And if she can’t think of ideas, OP says she periodically sends out emails with suggestions!

        It sounds more to me like this writer isn’t taking the initiative she needs to, and when she gets called out on it, she falls back on guilting OP about how much she needs this job, rather than working to make improvements.

  6. Names are for Chumps

    Question for the LW, are these writing prompts “millennial-centric?” Are you perhaps purposely speaking in completely modernistic language to cut her out; and that’s why you believe you have a bias? Your feeling comes from somewhere. I would ask her how she perceives your interactions with her vs the remainder of the group. (Clique?, no?)

    1. Temperance

      I think LW’s feeling comes from the fact that her problem employee is significantly older, and she is worried about ageism. I don’t think she’s discriminating against this employee, I think this employee is being manipulative.

      If this woman wants to work for a millenial-centric website, she needs to get with the program, learn “completely modernistic language”, and start contributing on the level of the other writers.

      1. RadManCF

        Although I didn’t get the impression that the employee was being manipulative, I otherwise agree. I got the impression that OP wants to act on this with an abundance of caution.

        1. Temperance

          Whenever LW brings up her performance concerns, the problem employee starts talking about how this is all she has and other whines that I think are designed to throw the conversation off of performance and focus it elsewhere.

          1. RadManCF

            Ah, I guess I see it now. On my first read, I had defaulted to naiveté and/or desperation on the part of the employee.

              1. Falling Diphthong

                Yes. If only manipulative people would manipulate solely for idle thrills, it would be easier to kick them to the curb.

          2. neverjaunty

            This. She probably isn’t doing it consciously, but she’s guilt-tripping the LW.

            “You can’t care about her job more than she does” is such good advice here.

          3. Stranger than fiction

            Yep. I have an older coworker who, whenever I simply remind her of a process she forgot to follow, starts talking baby talk to me like “ok miss stranger I will twy and wemember”. UGH!

      2. k.k

        That was my take given OP’s tone. There are other older (than OP) employees that seem to be up to standards and understanding OP. I doubt they’re going around like, “Sorry not sorry, but I literally can’t even with your work. Can you try being less basic next time? I need this to be work goals AF.”

    2. Seriously?

      Since the LW is trying to make sure that she avoids be ageist, it is a safe bet that she is not purposely doing anything to cut out this employee. Subconsciously maybe but if it were intentional she would not be asking.

      1. Ainomiaka

        I don’t think Names comment said anything about international. The subconscious reading is what I’d be worried about and it can still be ageist.

        1. Seriously?

          I was responding to this part: “purposely speaking in completely modernistic language to cut her out.”

    3. justsomeone

      Even if the prompts are “millennial-centric” if that’s the audience they’re writing for, that’s the audience they’re writing for. The OP can’t suddenly decide that their website needs content for non-millennials if millennials are the website’s core audience.

      1. Curious Cat

        Agreed, justsomeone! And you don’t have to be the age group that aligns with your audience. That’s why YA authors are, often, not young adults and teens. The OP’s employee presumably understands what type of audience she’s supposed to be writing for through her job, so that doesn’t seem to be the issue here.

        (I also don’t think OP is trying to cut out her employee — it sounds like she’s trying to do the exact opposite! We shouldn’t)

          1. Curious Cat

            Hahah incredible. It will consist of keyboard smashes as words and the pictures will be just whatever the baby decides to stick their fingers into and rub on the page.

          2. Stranger than fiction

            Haha! Reminds me of a commercial I saw where an old man sees a book on the floor and says “dentistry for children?! I don’t want no child working on my teeth!”

      2. CityMouse

        Well the thing is that as a writer you need to be able to code switch. This isn’t that millennials can write for the internet and boomers cannot. I have a friend who writes for a magazine and does a blog for them. His in print articles and blog posts differ significantly in level of formality, that is just what writers have to be able to do. Writing for context is a skill that you should be able to expect from a professional writer.

        1. Falling Diphthong

          Yes–code switching is absolutely a writing thing.

          A while back there was a writer who was told by her boss to make some of her work a bit more formal in tone, but she believed that Buzzfeed (her choice of example) was the level at which all content for everything should be written, to be friendly.

      1. k.k

        I’ve never heard that phrase, but one can only assume it’s this: 01100110 01101100 01100101 01100101 01101011

      2. NaoNao

        I don’t think that’s the best possible nomenclature for it, but I think it means, in short:

        Up to date slang and abbreviations, used correctly
        Inclusive, respectful and considerate terms in current usage for minorities, POC, etc (so, we don’t say “colored”, “Oriental” or anything like that) or similar (regions of the globe, titles, etc)
        Tone, word choice, style, and rhythms are in line with similar publications
        Topic and attitude towards topic is fresh, in line with current social standards, and indicates general up to date awareness of social mores around topic even if it’s a contrarian or “unpopular” stance

        You know how when you pick up a book from the 60s it immediately dates itself with certain turns of phrases or words? “Maura gazed at her plain-Jane visage in the mirror, wishing she could be more ladylike. The 50c lipstick she had saved for a week to buy on her secretary wages just wasn’t helping. Aw, nuts!”

        That’s not “modernistic language”.

        1. Julia

          > Up to date slang and abbreviations, used correctly

          I’m 28 and I don’t even think I could do this.

  7. OperaArt

    I’m 60, and have been using the Internet since the mid 1980s. (The Internet was started in the 1960s, but only rocketed off when Tim Berners-Lee figured out he could park the Web on top of it in the early 1990s.)
    My Mom is 84, and is proficient with email, social media, and the Web.

    Don’t assume that older people cannot handle this. If you don’t want to be ageist, manage her as you would if she were 30 or 40. Address her work issues.

    1. TeacherNerd

      Yes, this! One of my professors, while I was a 30-year-old undergrad, kept insisting that I didn’t know my way around computers and the internet (“digital immigrant”) the way my 20-year-old (“digital native”) classmates did. This, despite I had a website with my own domain, blogged, and knew enough HTML to create a website. (I had one young classmate who couldn’t figure out how to post to her Blogger-hosted blog; instead of creating a blog post, she left a comment for herself.) My professor was older than I was, and, I don’t think, was surrounded by people of his own age who had been programming since the ’70s and ’80s. (This is not to say I EVER tried to pass myself off as a programmer, but at the time I happened to be in a social circle with friends who were 10+ years older than I and who DID have those skills.)

      There are people of all ages who know how to use tech, and those of all ages who don’t. Address the issue, not the tech issues, unless the lack of familiarity with tech issues is impeding your colleague’s ability to do her work.

      1. CityMouse

        Yeah, my boss is in her 60s and she runs some of our computer systems. You don’t have to be a millennial to know how to use tech.

      2. PSB

        The whole “digital native” thing is so overrated. Sure, I didn’t have access to the internet until I was 17, but I’ve worked in technology every day of the 24 years since then. I’m unimpressed by teenagers being “digital natives” because it’s still several years less experience, even though they started younger. It’s also a different kind of knowledge – modern teens in general know how to use apps but not how the underlying technology works in the same way kids my age knew VCRs, my parents’ generation knew TV, and their parents’ generation knew telephones. Technology created by one generation is amazing at first before being completely routine to the following generation. It’s nothing new. I really think it’s gotten the attention it has because of the voracious appetite for content to fill all the websites and apps.

        1. PSB

          And inevitably, as they get older some of the “digital natives” will lose interest in keeping up with the latest apps while those who are interested will create whatever comes next. My grandparents used telephones without a second thought, but didn’t care about call waiting or caller ID. My parents grew up watching TV but COLOR TV was worth advertising well into the 80s. I thought DVRs were amazing when TiVo first came out in the late 90s, but I didn’t have one until 2005.

        2. CMart

          I was shocked, as a 30 year old in a grad program populated mostly by early-20’s folk, how many of my classmates in our accounting program had never even heard of keyboard shortcuts. An accountant’s day to day life in the working world depends on Excel, and I taught nearly every person I worked in a group with “ctrl+c”, among even more powerful and amazing tricks (“ctrl+[” right near blew their minds).

          They may be digital natives, but they never took a word processing class or a Microsoft Office class like I did when I was in middle school. Living life with a screen might be second nature to them, but if no one has ever shown you that keyboard commands even exist, how are you supposed to know how to use them?

          1. LCL

            Somebody (too busy to look it up) sent a post to Alison complaining that their coworker was annoying and incompetent, and their chief evidence of this was that the person didn’t know how to use keyboard shortcuts.

          2. PSB

            Yes, exactly! My favorite is Windows+L to lock a computer before walking away. Half the IT people I’ve worked with don’t know that one. That’s a good point about knowing how to use something vs really learning it. My 10 year old son has had to create Powerpoint presentations for school a couple of times and knows how to put words and pictures on slides, but I thought his mind was going to explode when I showed him how to change themes and the layout of a slide.

          3. DArcy

            The relative value of keyboard shortcuts beyond the basic everyday-use ones is substantially diminished by a good GUI menu system, though.

        3. Julia

          That’s the thing with “native” bias. It’s a topic we often discuss in linguistics: Being a “native” speaker of a language does not mean you’re an expert. I know native speakers of English who cannot spell, whose (or whos’ omg) grammar is atrocious, who cannot write clear sentences or who mumble so much that no one understands them.

          Why should “digital natives” be any different?

          1. Julia

            Also, my linguistics professor, who is obviously much older than I am, knows MUCH more about technology than I do.

      3. Wintermute

        I was discussing this with a friend of mine, talking about her teenage children and how LITTLE they seem to know–

        Early milennials grew up in an era where there were no “non-technical computer users”. To do basic things like run a program you had to navigate directory trees, to play a video game you had to understand hardware (what does it mean when it asks EGA/VGA/SVGA? Why does it sound funny when I select “SoundBlaster or Compatible” as opposed to “Creative Audio” and why does it make funny sounds from my case when I select “PC Speaker”?!). Every user had to know a bit of programming, a bit about hardware, understand the guts of their machine in a way modern users just don’t have to.

        People of the “it just works when I press the button” generation lack that in some very meaningful ways, even in highly technical areas– an old-school *nix hacker is going to have forgotten more about interprocess communication than anyone that just uses JSON and Kafka streams will ever know. And that applies to someone that worked on old “heavy iron” servers but never really took time to become a guru versus someone that downloaded a PDP-8 emulator and spent a few months playing with it but is 40 years younger.

        Age and experience have little correlation, because people that are younger can seek out more experience and someone could be older and far more experienced than someone younger who is not used to thinking in a technical way, just consuming computer products.

        1. SarahTheEntwife

          Honestly, this is one thing that makes a lot of modern programs and website *less* usable for me. I grew up not being someone who knew how to rewire hardware or anything, but someone who could sit down and play around with menus and user guides and figure out how a device or program worked pretty easily. Now everything is all slick and visual and “intuitive”, but if your intuition is different than the developers’ intuition, you’re stuck clicking on icons until you find the one that does what you want it to. There now seems to be this fashion for power buttons on computers to be ever-so-discreet and subtle and flush with the computer so that I’m stuck randomly poking the casing until I remember where they put it if it’s a model I don’t use often. I’ve gone from being someone who was good with computers on a user-level to someone who’s only sort of ok at it and it feels really weird.

    2. Work Wardrobe

      Yeah, I hate that assumption, it’s all too prevalent.

      Those of us who are 50+ have been around computers for decades, thankyouverymuch.

      1. CMart

        My go-to person for all things computer related is my dad. He was born in 1943, and has been obsessed with all things technology since his little hands could rewire a clock. His obsession has only gotten more in depth since he retired because now he can study up on all kinds of things, not just what he needed to know for his job.

        1. Bagpuss

          Yes, my dad was born in 1946. He spent his entire career working with computers, way back to when code had to be hand carved on tablets of stone…

        2. Specialk9

          Yeah me too. We had the first computer of anyone I knew, and my 80 year old techie dad was always researching the latest gadget and thingy. I’m pretty good with tech, but nothing like him.

        3. Elizabeth West

          My dad is 81 and doesn’t use tech, but he used to work for a company way back in the day when punch cards were still a thing. If he’d stayed in it (re: if we’d stayed in the city instead of moving to TinyTown USA), he probably would be a whiz at it.

          We were hanging out a couple of years ago at Thanksgiving and I handed him my phone so he could look at my Instagram feed and he said, “It’s just like a little computer, isn’t it?” I bet he would totally use a smartphone, if somebody else paid for it, LOL.

      2. Screenwriter

        Right? And who could be more of a digital “native” than THE GENERATION THAT WROTE THE SOURCE CODE for the internet??????

        1. DArcy

          The difference is volume — for older generations, the people who *made* the things knew everything about them and the people who *used* the things knew a lot about them, but people *in general* didn’t. Whereas in modern generations, pretty much *everyone* has at least basic computer skills.

          Think about it this way: knowing Microsoft Office used to be a specialist skill that you’d put on your resume. Then it became a standard skill for any kind of office or administrative position. And now it’s even more widespread than that, to the point where employers pretty much take it for granted that “everyone knows that”.

    3. Anon.

      Exactly, just deal with the productivity issue first, honestly it is not always about age. I’m 60, and I’ve been a web dev for almost 25 years. I kind of know my way around the Internet. I also get regularly informed by digikids the value of Google, how to do this file transfer thingie, and the importance of Twitter. :)

    4. Kate 2

      Honestly, my parents are as tech savvy as I am, and they are more so in some ways. They love social media, I hate it. I am not on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, etc, but they are on Facebook. It’s not at ALL about age, but rather whether people are willing to learn new things and stretch their minds. I know some people my age who choose to be so intellectually mute it’s shocking, and 90 year olds who are active, outgoing, social and always learning, simply joys to be around.

      1. DArcy

        My parents hate social media and use it minimally; they’re mostly e-mail people. My *grandfather*, however, has in his retirement years reached “stereotypical teenage girl” levels of Facebook use via iPhone and iPad — and that’s literally someone who grew up in a Third World country.

  8. k.k

    I just wanted to add that if you do end up having to fire her, don’t beat yourself up too much because she says she’s desperate and this is her only source of income. It’s impossible not to feel bad, it’s natural to feel compassion, but you didn’t create her situation. A lot of people have money issues and only one source of income. It’s a really rough situation to be in, but it doesn’t give you a free pass to keep a job you’r failing at (I say this as someone with a lot of money problems). If you’ve followed Alison’s advice and given clear guidance and warnings, there’s not much more you can do. It will not feel good to fire this person, but you can’t keep them around forever out of sympathy.

    1. RadManCF

      This! To me, it sounded like the employee has dug their own grave by not following instructions, not being receptive to suggestions, and by not having irons in other fires. As I said down thread, organizations don’t exist for the benefit of their employees, and retaining a poor performer can cause problems. Think of firing this person as “cutting off the hand to save the arm.”

    2. Dust Bunny

      If she’s desperate and it’s her only source of income, then it’s on her to make sure she does the work and does it well. If she’s not taking idea suggestions or responding to emails, she’s either not doing as much as she could, or she’s in the wrong profession.

      It’s entirely possible for somebody [who happens to be older] to struggle with a job simply because it’s the wrong job, or because they’re not organized, or whatever, and that they would have these problems regardless of age.

    3. Mr. Rogers

      Also it’s often good to remember that if you cut this person (as sad as it might be), you’re opening up room for another person who is just as desperate for work (but maybe doesn’t broadcast that to their boss!) to take on more jobs AND do them well.

    4. Manders

      Yes, this is something I struggle with a lot since I found myself overseeing a team of freelance writers. I even had to have a difficult talk with one I’m on friendly terms with, because she had been talking about quitting her day job and I needed to make sure she knew that the work I’m sending her depends on a project that might not keep going forever. I try to remind all of my freelancers that I’m willing to work around their schedules with other clients.

      I’ve had to stop using a few freelancers who ignored or argued with my instructions. It wasn’t fun and it made me feel like a real jerk, but forcing other people to clean up their messes wouldn’t have been kind either.

  9. Falling Diphthong

    I’m a writer in my 40s.

    Making an exception for personal circumstances makes sense from a long history of great work. People build up credit with you, so when a snag appears you extend them some of that credit–you know Petunia usually hits all her deadlines with solid work, so if she can’t this week you trust it’s a one-off and that maintaining the long-term relationship will pay off. But what you describe here is an ongoing pattern of poor work. And whether she is older or younger or any other adjective shouldn’t come into it, unless it’s like any other accommodation you would make for someone going part-time. (Age, health, third parties who need care-taking.) I think you need to let her go.

    (And as a freelancer–“this is my only job” and “I really need the money” are terrible, desperate, not-quality-of-work-based arguments to make. “Pay me, I have bills to meet” is normal when insisting that checks for past work appear before the current assignment proceeds; it’s not an argument for why someone should hire one to start with.)

    1. Snark

      And, like….we all really need the money. This IS my only job. We’re all probably going to be in desperate circumstances if that income disappears. These are not uniquely compelling reasons to continue to source work from a contractor who isn’t responsive, requires excessive direction, and does not reliably produce work of the same caliber as her peers.

    2. Tuxedo Cat

      Most people need the money and only have one job. I sympathize, but it’s not the best reason to keep someone.

    3. Hellanon

      A similar argument to the “this is my only job/I need the money” in creative fields is “But they’re so nice!” There was a huge argument about this in the jewelry blogosphere a couple of years back – a post criticizing a designer’s workmanship went viral, igniting a bit of controversy. A number people basically said, “Don’t criticize her work, she’s a lovely person” to which my response was, look, if all you can say about someone’s work is that they are a nice person, that’s not actually a compliment…

      1. AnonEMoose

        It sounds like the equivalent of asking, “what does he/she look like” and being told “he/she has a great personality” in the context of dating.

        1. KayEss

          Or the reverse, asking “what would/do we have in common” and getting “he/she is really hot!”

      2. Stranger than fiction

        Those people must all work here. I’m surrounded by mediocrity, but apparently if you’re nice you can stay.

    4. Sutemi

      There is a decent chance that some of your other freelancers really, really need the money and are going through a rough patch as well, but they don’t talk about it with you. They just put good work and ask for more! When I have gone through trying times, the first person I tell isn’t my boss.

  10. SoCalHR

    “You can’t care more about her job than she does.”
    This can apply to so many different performance situations…but in this one, saying she’s desperate for the job but repeatedly not following directions is a conflict that doesn’t add up.

  11. AnonEMoose

    My cynical side is kicking in a bit here. More on that in a moment.

    The OP should definitely have that hard conversation, yes. That’s a necessary step here, regardless of whether my cynical side is right or wrong.

    The cynical side is kicking in a bit here because some of the comments made by the employee, which are admittedly as reported by the OP and not directly from the source, are feeling a bit manipulative to me. Which says to me that the employee may be well aware that her performance is at least somewhat lacking. And she is, instead of trying to find out how to improve, attempting to use the OP’s very genuine concern for her in order to not get fired.

    Specifically, the “it’s my only source of income, ” “I’m desperate for this job” comments are kind of rubbing me the wrong way. Maybe it’s perfectly true. But even if that’s the case, it just feels a bit like she is setting up a “manager picking on the employee who is doing her best and really needs the job, and…” sort of dynamic.

    Maybe I’m totally wrong. I don’t know that it changes what the OP needs to do, either way. In my job (although not in the context of employees), I often see emotional arguments like this from people. Some of them are very genuinely sad and distressing. But whatever sympathy/empathy I may feel, it doesn’t change what I need to do. I’ve also had the experience of finding out that people were blatantly lying about their circumstances. All of that does color my perspective here.

    Alison’s advice is spot on. Have the conversation and be clear about what you need to see from her. She may be very upset. If she is, then she is, and it’s not because you did anything wrong, OP. Some people do cry or otherwise react emotionally very easily, and hearing critical feedback is never easy. Her reaction is not your responsibility. Your responsibility is to clearly communicate the feedback and then to give her the opportunity to meet the standard you’ve provided. Maybe she will, and everything will be fine. But if she doesn’t, you can know that you gave her the chance, and that matters a lot.

    1. Slow Gin Lizz

      I was thinking the same thing, that it seems rather manipulative to me. Employee knows she’s not doing the work the way she should so she’s using emotions to try to keep her job. And I also “don’t know that it changes what the OP needs to do.” 100% that. Just manage her and see how she does, and make it clear that if she doesn’t change her ways that you will no longer need her writing services (if you intend to go that route, that is).

      1. Irene Adler

        Yeah, I had some skeptical thoughts regarding the “this is my only job” and “I’m desperate” statements. They smack of manipulation to me. Someone genuinely wanting to do well on the job would ask for tips on how to improve their performance (“Please tell me things I can do better or differently to improve my work product.”).

        1. Dust Bunny

          Same.

          If you need this job so badly, *act* like you need it badly and do better, or talk to your manager, or whatever it takes to get back on track. I had a job a billion years ago where a mediocre-at-best employee pleaded that she needed the job, but she never seemed to need it badly enough to show up on time or follow instructions. Too bad, kid.

    2. LouiseM

      Agreed. My job is also my only job…I also have some older freelancers in my family and social circles, and they do not pull this.

    3. MLB

      Agreed. If you have a super awesome team member who normally does a phenomenal job and then they have some personal things happen that affects their job, you can cut them a bit of slack temporarily. But someone who has never done their job correctly and always struggles, deserves very little slack, if any at all.

  12. animaniactoo

    OP, it sounds like there is ageism going on here – but not in the way that you’re thinking. It sounds like due to her age, you’re not managing her the way you would another employee. The backbend to give her more leeway is creating a different set of issues than the ones you’re thinking about – but the root cause is the same: Your concern about her age.

    So first you need to nail down – have you asked her to be more responsive via e-mail? Have you been clear about what you expect from her without having to call and push her?

    If not, start there. Really start managing her the way you would any other employee. Including expecting her to get the technology & digital etiquette stuff down. You can make suggestions for things that will help her do it – however, ultimately, it’s on her to pursue that and make it work. Particularly if she’s going to accept a job working remotely.

    But! It sounds like a good chunk of what you need is some scripts to practice for when the commiseration train starts rolling – this above all else is what you need in order to effectively manager her. Including – as Alison said – reminding yourself before you call, that you can’t care more about her job and put more work into her keeping it than she does. That is not a reasonable burden on you, and you should not take it on. If you have to let her go that is perhaps that will sufficiently motivate her to find something more suited to her. Or not. But the point is, that’s effort that has to come from her – not you. Especially when SHE above all people knows her circumstances and therefore should be on top of making sure that she’s putting in everything she can.

    “Things are pretty dire here”
    “I’m sorry to hear that. Perhaps you could use some of the content ideas that I’ve sent out to get you jumpstarted.”
    “Oh, I just don’t connect to any of those.”
    “Well, that’s unfortunate but I really need to see more pieces from you. What else can you use for inspiration?”
    “I’ve just been so stressed out.”
    “I can sympathize with that, but this has been going on for awhile and I need you to be able to be more on top of this without my having to call you. Do you think that will be possible?”

    You can both validate what she’s saying, and commiserate with it – without allowing it to be an excuse for why she’s not performing as well as you need her to over the long term. Practice what you will say in response to what, as much as possible, based on the types of responses you have heard from her before and the types she might be expected to make as someone who is looking for a “sympathy out”. If you have it on hand, it will be much easier to reach for that response than what you’ve been doing so far.

    And since this is a remote conversation, and she will never see it, feel free to have a written/printed reminder in front of you to refer to as backbone for sticking to it.

    1. animaniactoo

      P.S. If she says something you don’t know how to handle in the moment – don’t respond to it. Put it off. “Hmmm. That sounds pretty bad. Let me call you back later and we can talk about that.” Or anything along those lines that will give you time to decide how you want to respond to it. As opposed to right now when your fall back is straight compassionate human being stance that you need to firm up against in order to manage her effectively and have her figure out how to manage both her job and her issues. Because while on the employer side, there should be understanding and leeway – there should not be an unending well of it for work she is being paid to do. It’s totally fine to start indicating that she’s dipping into the well too much, and her accommodation is starting to dry up.

    2. Decima Dewey

      This 62 year old thinks that you have a superpar employee, and that said employee is heading off criticism with comments that this is the only thing she has, et cetera. Tackle the performance issues and document them, being careful that the wording doesn’t read as ageist. It’s not her age that’s the problem. It’s that she isn’t working at the level she should, and isn’t making any effort to improve. If you’d put a 40 year old employee like this on a PIP, then you need to put the 60-something employee on one.

  13. RadManCF

    It seems pretty clear that this person is a sub-par contributor, and that separation would be warranted. Kudos to the OP for considering the possibility of bias though; frustration can definitely distort perceptions, and affect behavior. One bit of advice that I’d add in a situation like this is to make sure that you don’t start using ageist language out of frustration with the poor performance. If she is separated, instances of ageist language directed at her will make resolving any disputes over the separation more difficult. I’d also remind the OP that an organization doesn’t exist for the benefit of its employees, but to pursue a specific mission. Coddling a poor performer is (probably) harmful for an organization, and by extension harmful for its employees. Not only is the impediment of the mission a threat to the livelihoods of the good performers, the presence of poor performers is a drag on morale.

      1. LouiseM

        I think this may be some sort of parody or joke account. I don’t notice her comments often but the few times I have it’s when she’s absolutely *lunged* at me for an innocuous comment, so I’m taking her as some sort of pot-stirring comic performance.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          It’s not a joke account. She’s a long-time commenter. I disagree with her comment here, but she’s a long-time regular whose comments have often been smart, funny, and insightful.

          I know I noted recently that Crystal Mama was a parody account, and since then people have been questioning if others are. Please let me officially state that I have no reason to believe any others are, and I’d prefer people not hurl that accusation at others.

      1. Rozine

        I think that everyone is ageist subconsciously to some extent, it is pretty much a fact just like everyone in privileged groups are racist or sexist. She can’t help it except to always try to stay ahead of it and catch her ageist attitudes whenever she realizes they are coming to the surface.

    1. Student

      This comment implies that older people are actually inherently worse at basic tasks when computers are involved. That’s real ageism.

      The task – writing – isn’t something new to the computer era.

      Computers aren’t new or rare at this point. In the US, we hit 50% of households having a computer in 2000, with adults regularly using computers at much higher levels. I know in ~2000, my community library (in a very poor neighborhood) had public-use computers. We hit 50% adult use of social media in ~2011. My grade school (same poor community) had a computer lab in the early 90s. Computers, as a technology, have been used commercially for a heck of a lot longer (with a smaller group exposed directly to them).

      If this was 2002, then maybe you could make a legitimate argument that older people haven’t had as much chance to learn these things. But this is 2018. That excuse has expired. Computers were pretty affordable, easy to use, and internet access was readily available, by 2010 (and I think I could fairly make the same argument for several years earlier). Even deeply poor people and people in remote areas have solutions to get computer and internet access. Even if she was slow to adopt new tech or slow to learn, she’s had several years to pick one up and learn how to fly it.

      It’s long past time to stop pretending computers are some new contraption.

    2. hbc

      I suppose you could accuse her of ageism in that she’s holding this contractor to a lower standard due to age. Depending on her state, that might be actionable discrimination–against the younger contractors.

      1. DArcy

        Unfortunately, *federal* law says discrimination against younger employees is perfectly legal. Ageism is one of the only civil rights rules that creates an exclusive “protected class” rather than an inclusive “protected characteristic”.

  14. CityMouse

    Some jobs require computer literacy and it isn’t ageist. There was a guy who interviewed with my organization whp said he couldn’t use computers or type. Our entire job involves reviewing documents, searching for cases, and drafting documents on a computer. For instance, these days you need to know how to do legal case research in one of the computer systems, as using the printed reporters just doesn’t work and means you are behind on the latest cases.

    For many jobs, computers and the internet changed everything. It isn’t ageist to have to adapt to changes. My 70 year old dad has embraced electronic medical records, for instance, and they have made his notes and dictation duties way faster.

  15. Specialk9

    OP, I commend you on soul searching for implicit bias. We all have it, and the only way to safeguard is to watch and question ourselves (and others) to make sure what we’re doing is ok. Especially as new managers! (Or any new role in which we’re establishing future patterns.)

    In this case, I think you’re ok. You’re pointing to specific work related issues. If you need a writer who gives you what you need in the time you need, that’s great. Otherwise, you need someone else.

  16. Indoor Cat

    Man, I feel bad for LW, mainly because the question of potentially firing an employee whom you know is in hard times and is less employable is so painful to contemplate. There are very few heartless bosses out there, and anyone with a heart is more hesitant to fire someone if it looks like they won’t land on their feet.

    I don’t actually have much useful advice here, just empathy. Although! Perhaps perspective: I myself am a part-time freelance writer (my second job, and one I’m currently procrastinating doing, haha), and I’ve been in situations where, for whatever reason, an editor stops sending me work or replying to my emails, or sends me one email saying they no longer need my services. There was a point where that really did put me in dire straits. But! Someone who’s a talented writer can and will find more work if they’re motivated. Writing is a valuable skill nowadays, and your employee might be more anxious than she needs to be if she genuinely has ability.

  17. Dame Edna

    My mom, stepmom, and father are all in their late sixties and recently retired, but they’re all able to research and write pieces fairly quickly. They text, Facebook, and are going to teach me to use What’s App. If they don’t know how to do something, they’re able to look it up. My mom is a former technical writer and I frequently ask her how to do things in Word and Excel.

    It could just be that she’s not cut out for content writing. I’ve tried it before and concluded that it’s something that comes easily to some people and not so easily to others (like me).

  18. CC

    I’m not so sure about Alison’s characterization of ageism. I don’t think ageism is what is going on in this letter, but ageism can be much more subtle. My mom’s union has gotten behind her with ageism concerns when she was reprimanded for being “too slow” in doing a manual labor job (think something like working at an Amazon warehouse worker but with an actual union). Anyway, my point is pretty unrelated to the LW’s problem, but I’m glad the LW is thinking about these things, but I don’t think ageism is the problem here.

    1. Kate 2

      Mmm . . . if the person isn’t doing the job, or not doing the job as well as needed it isn’t ageism. I’m sorry to hear about your mom’s trouble, but if she wasn’t meeting the standard agreed upon (12 boxes an hour or whatever), then that is a problem, and is not ageism. If on the other hand she was due for a raise (10 years at the company, etc) and they were making up complaints to get her fired, that might well qualify as ageism.

      This writer isn’t doing good work, and what she is doing is very slow. The letter writer is managing employees older than herself who are doing the work satisfactorily and quickly. This is not ageism.

      1. PSB

        Even with an “objective” performance metric, it’s still not as clear cut as you make it sound.

        – Is everyone who isn’t meeting the metric treated the same way? Are younger workers treated more leniently, given more opportunities to improve, or even just treated more kindly by management with regard to failing the standard?
        – When was the metric set? Was it created or changed recently? Was it set or changed knowing the older worker wouldn’t meet the new standard?
        – Why was it set where it is? Is there a business reason the goal needs to be set where it is, or is it an arbitrary choice?
        – How many employees are making the goal? Is it a realistic goal that an average person can achieve?
        – Are other older employees able to hit the goal consistently?

        And all that’s assuming there IS an objective metric and the boss isn’t just subjectively criticizing the employee for being “slow.” Even “objective” criteria can be set or applied in ways that are discriminatory, both intentionally and unintentionally.

  19. Laura H

    What’s important is that OP is recognizing the potential landmine that handling this incorrectly would be.

    Focusing on the issues at hand is important. Your subordinate is clearly missing marks and you need to address that.

    Technology isn’t an age related exclusivity. I’m in the millennial generation and I have trouble with it and I get frustrated when it doesn’t work… be it user or hardware error… it’s bothersome and frustrating when I can’t fix it. Tech is frustrating, and it’s easier to pick up for some and not so easy for others. There’s also the matter of asking the right questions too. Easier for some than others.

    Good luck OP.

  20. Long Time Reader, First Time Poster

    Sometimes managers give less feedback to people who feel different from them — because they’re intimidated or they worry about how it’ll go over, or they just don’t feel the same rapport as they would with an employee of the same age (or race or sex or so forth).

    This point is a bit buried, but I think it’s such a key issue to identify. I think it’s a difficult lesson for new managers to learn, and I know I’ve been burned by managers that wouldn’t/couldn’t give feedback.

    1. Super Anon Today

      Yes, and the same can be said for employees talking about their managers and peers.

      Is my manager actually mean, or do I criticize a woman’s tone more than a man’s? Is this coworker overly picky when it comes to team lunches, or am I not being considerate enough of his religious dietary restrictions?

      I think OP did a good job of pointing out exactly what the issues are with the person’s performance, rather than saying she just doesn’t click and other language that’s coded ageism.

  21. Chatterby

    *Call her*
    Instead of emailing. Call her or video chat and give her a specific assignment.
    When you email a giant chunk of text instructions, it is so, so easy to just glance through them and then do what you want. Email is very easy to ignore or misunderstand.
    So try alternate forms of communication. If you call her, or video Skype her, it’s more apparent if she understands or not and you can add details right then or have her repeat things back to you.
    Giving her a specific, assigned topic will help, too. If your topic suggestions are being sent out in a general, scheduled email, again, those are very easy to ignore because they aren’t important. Or, there’s an embarrassment/ boredom/ pride thing involved with having to use one off the list. Just assign her one to remove all of the guess work. If you like, tell her to come up with 5 or so story ideas to mail you every Friday. Keep the good ones and assign them to her later, toss the rest.
    Another good thing to check is whether she received adequate training on the desired formats, styles, and templates and that she understands why she needs to use them, and that she’s clear on the overall process she needs to follow.

    1. Snark

      The thing is, though….managing her like this is itself an issue. She’s a freelancer, a contractor – she’s not an employee, and she can’t really expect this level of direction in her position. Is it not equally problematic to handle her with kid gloves?

    2. jotpe

      Yeah, it’s not clear to me how the topic selection is supposed to go. Does she feel like those suggested topics are not actually up for grabs somehow? Or that using one is an admission of failure? Although if she’s complaining that she can’t think of anything, then she ought to be using the list!

    3. Manders

      This is a fine thing to do when you’re working with one writer, but it sounds like the OP is dealing with a very large group of writers. Content managers can be really, really busy–you might like someone personally, but if they can’t handle the workflow that everyone else is using, there’s a limit on how much time you can devote to making their life easier.

    4. Bea

      She’s in a position that requires her to read and understand what is expected of her. She doesn’t need so excessive coaching or handling when she’s freelance. That puts you in jeopardy of being able to even pay her via 1099 if you’re managing her so closely. That’s the very base of contractor work.

      1. Wintermute

        This, right here. It would be awesome if you could adapt your management style perfectly to every employee, but the law has definitions and those definitions matter, and they matter in a big way. A 1099 needs to be able to work as a 1099, not get you to implicitly reclass them as a W-2 and hope there’s no tax or income dispute.

  22. No Regrets

    I would check, also, how much chit chat and other contact you have with the millenial workers vs. the older worker. Historically men get ahead because they get more face to face time with the bosses: happy hours, golf trips, etc. that women are often shut out of, and so in the same way, I wonder if you’re more friendly and chatty with the younger workers, and that creates a beneficial relationship with them that you may not have with the older worker, because maybe you don’t feel like you have shared things to chit chat about? And that goes the other way, too.

  23. FD

    I don’t know if this is really a universal cure-all but I think that one way that can be helpful to check yourself for bias is to imagine the same behavior in another person, and think about how you’d react.

    As an example, if you’re considering coaching a female employee for coming off too strongly, it can be good to mentally imagine the same behavior from a male one and see if you’d provide the same coaching. The answer might be yes, or it might be no.

  24. Screenwriter

    I’m 65, and still have a flourishing career as a screenwriter. I have tons of communications, meetings, emails, texts, with executives, some of whom are literally young enough to be my grandchildren. I make punishing deadlines, with millions of dollars at stake. My job literally is to come up with ideas, so I come up with ideas. I also have managed my money carefully through my entire career, saved, invested, lived below my means, along with my husband, and I could quit tomorrow and it wouldn’t make a single difference in my income stream. I am so annoyed at women my own age who behave like this employee. She’s simply not very good at her job, and never has been if she’s still living paycheck to paycheck. Would you take the same excuses and laziness and ineptitude from a younger employee? Of course not.
    At the same time: women my age were battered and bullied into not taking their jobs seriously; I was told over and over in my 20s (the 1970s) that I shouldn’t be working, I was taking work away from men, I should be home having babies, I wasn’t feminine. I was super strong-minded and determined, and ferociously stood up to it. But many women weren’t so strong. They bought the cultural dictates that were hammered into them, and here they are 40 years later living paycheck to paycheck or in their cars. So I appreciate that you are caring and want to be fair and kind to this older lady. Perhaps you can somehow reconfigure her work? Give her specific stories to work on? Mentally count on her less? If she actually is giving you some good work, it’s a “mitzvah” (as my people say) to help her stay productive and self-supporting.

    1. FrontRangeOy

      I love your comment so much. I’m approaching 40, and just crawling out from under the rock of cultural dictates. It’s extraordinarily difficult to do at my age, as a woman and when US culture generally values youth and idealism but it’s worth it to be self supporting.

    2. AnonEMoose

      I just wanted to say thank you for being stubborn and determined enough to do this, and for helping to break down some of those barriers, making it easier for women my age (late 40s).

      I was lucky in a couple of significant ways. While I was raised in a rural area, my parents valued education (and still do), and they encouraged me to learn. About anything I was curious about. Plus I had two aunts who never married or had children, and who both worked. One of my grandmothers had also worked outside the home. So for me, that was part of the range of “normal.”

      I knew, from when I was old enough to notice it, that women had more options than “get married, have kids.” Those are perfectly fine options if that’s what a person wants to do and it’s feasible for them. But they wouldn’t have been good options for me. I’m married, no kids, and that works well for me. But it mattered that knowing there were options was part of my world before I even consciously realized it.

      1. Screenwriter

        Yes, I was lucky too: my parents were European, post WW2 emigres (my Dad escaped on the Kindertransport), both of them highly educated and absolutely not brooking any nonsense–we were in America to DO OUR BEST!

        My Dad was a Professor of Electrical Engineering at UC Berkeley for 50 years (and taught most of the kids who went on to write the source code for the internet) and he insisted that I always do my best, that I fight for what’s right, and he gave me endless inspiration and support (despite the fact that I didn’t always appreciate it!).

        Before my writing career, I actually followed in his footsteps and became a college professor, getting a Ph.D. and landing a tenure-track job at an Ivy League college in the 1970s–and I can’t even begin to tell you how viciously the all-male faculty at my grad school fought against me and tried to fail me out; I also can tell you that during the entire time of my professorship, I don’t think there was one time that someone in the local town treated me like anything other than a co-ed. I remember one of my former grad school professors turning up to an event at my college, seeing me, and saying in amazement “What are YOU doing here?” One of my friends/colleagues (another young prof) chimed in merrily “Oh, she teaches here now [which, by the way, the prof well knew–he’d been my thesis advisor]– she drives and everything!”

        I finally had had enough of academia, and decided to go into the movie business (I figured if I was going to have to fight against assholes all day, I might as well be doing something I enjoyed and reached more people) and have, to my own surprise, had a 35 yr career as a TV/screenwriter. As I get to the point of considering retiring, I’m proud of myself, and grateful to my parents, but, gosh, it was a fight every step of the way, and frankly, in Hollywood, still very much is. I salute all of you women out there determined to make a difference. It’s wonderful to see. (<– NOT said with a creaky old lady voice, but as I take time off of my fierce political posts on Twitter!) I'm proud of all of us!

        1. Geillis D.

          Thank you so much for you comments. My mom was the sole female engineer, and an immigrant to boot, in a sea of airforce old boys. She somehow made it, but she was always overworked underpaid, and forget about management position.

          I’m reaping what my mom, and yourself, and the other fierce women who paved the way so that the world of Mad Men is no more. And you can never go wrong with an extra mitzvah or two.

    3. animaniactoo

      I appreciate that you can see both sides of this so clearly and pick sympathy with your frustration. That in itself is a mitzvah.

    4. LCL

      Thank you for posting this! The flat out intimidation you mention is one of the big reasons that the me too movement is taking off now. There are now enough younger women who weren’t around in the bad old days, and have no patience for what appears to them as a lack of sympathy from older women. I saw an online discussion the other day where a young woman was complaining about harassment to her older coworkers, and they responded that they had to put up with ra@# in their careers and the young woman should just be glad her harassment was minor.

  25. Drama Llama

    OP I’ve had the horrible task of firing people who truly need a job due to varying personal circumstances. Last person was in her late 50s. It’s been tough for her and she’s still job searching after several months.

    While I feel bad for her on a personal level, I have no regrets about her termination. The company treated her well throughout her employment, she was given ample opportunity to improve performance, yet she continued to miss significant deadlines and slacking off at work.

    She knew full well how difficult the job market was for her age and skill set. Yet she still failed to take any action to improve her work performance. That’s fully on her – not me. Working is basically exchanging money in return for labour. You don’t have to feel guilty for terminating that business relationship if someone fails to end up their part of the deal.

    Terminating a poor performer is sometimes necessary for the rest of the team. It’s frustrating to work with someone who doesn’t pull their weight. Not to mention the unfairness of wasting company resources on a person who contributes little and drains management time, when those resources could be better invested into employees who deserve it.

  26. Lana Kane

    “Ageism would be things like “I just can’t shake the sense that Jane doesn’t fit in here” (because she’s in a different stage of life than the rest of you) or “I don’t think Jane will ever grasp social media like the rest of us do, since she didn’t grow up with it.”

    This was really helpful for me, it’s a concise differentiation that I hadn’t quite honed in on myself. Thank you.

  27. Drama Llama

    Also, “this is my only job and I have bills to pay” is not a professionally acceptable response to critique of her work quality. She’s essentially saying “I can’t/won’t improve – but you can’t fire me because it will cause difficulty in my personal life.” It’s manipulative and selfish.

    Next time she laments her desperate personal circumstances I suggest calmly responding with “…and that’s another reason why it’s so important for you to improve the quality of your writing and take up suggestions I give you.” Then continue your professional feedback and coaching.

  28. Penfold

    It may be helpful to, in so many words, strip the identifiers from the data set (why yes, I do work in clinical research.) Take away the name and the face and the personal information you have and make it as objective as you can in regard to the job itself and the expectations. This could be anyone. I’ve found this useful when there is confounding information that distracts from or complicates a situation where it isn’t actually relevant, and can help lay the problem out plainly and hopefully without bias as much as you can. I’m not generally in favor of dehumanizing everything, but it can be a clarifying lens or tool.

  29. Quake Johnson

    I totally relate, OP. I’m in my mid-20s and just hired a woman in her upper 50s. Great lady, but she’s really struggling to remember anything, even basic tasks. I know she also gets really nervous, so I’m just really unsure if her poor performance is due to her age, her anxiety, or if she really is just a bad fit for this role. It’s hard to gauge what the next step should be.

  30. Bea

    No. No. Never fall for the “I need this job” sob story. She’s playing you like a fiddle, I’ve seen that from so many cowering when they’re told about performance issues. That’s not your concern, just about all of us need our jobs, it’s why we don’t just openly punch every Fergus we deal with!

    You need to be fair and consistent in expectations. You’ll run into someone your age that pulls this crap and slides by soon enough.

  31. SpaceNovice

    OP, make sure she’s not writing herself as incompetent due to her age, first. In a previous job, my “customers” were older due to the nature of having enough free time to participate in our project (aka, retired), and the majority of them did well with computers (and some knew more about our underlying technology than I did!). In all my time, I only ran into two people who were scared they were too old to learn new things–and it was just a mindset.

    After I told them that there was no “secret source of knowledge” for programmers and we googled the crap out of anything we didn’t know or experimented with something, they realized they could do it, too. Especially that there are tutorials out there for basically everything, both written and video. She needs to know that it’s okay to have gaps in her knowledge, but she also needs to know she has the power to fill them herself. I remember having to flip that mental switch when search engines finally started returning really good results that I had these resources available to me, even though I’m a millennial.

    You do NOT need to educate her. Teach her how to educate herself if she doesn’t already know. You don’t need to be rude and suggest this without proof she’s having difficulty; when you talk to her regarding your concerns in an open way, there should be some indication she needs that little push to start excelling.

    It’s not just an age thing, though. I once achieved 100% compliance to a process from almost 0% compliance by simply giving people to not know things. Those were engineers on multi-million dollar systems, anywhere from 20 to 60 years in age. People didn’t follow the directions because they didn’t understand the process and were too afraid to admit it, being engineers. When they realized they could come to me (the equivalent of the process’s google) and not be treated as stupid, they not only did it in droves but would refer people to me when they had problems. The majority of the training was just showing them where to find information after explaining the process at a high level. Everything else they figured out after they had the tools. It happened when I asked what they needed to succeed while the owners of the process, who COULD have asked that, just complained bitterly about no one being able to follow it.

    Ask her what’s up. Let her know it’s okay to not know everything right off the bat and that not knowing everything doesn’t make her stupid. Make sure she knows how to expand her knowledge–she is figuring some things out, by the sounds of it, and she very does good work when you push her. It sounds like she might be afraid to put forth her own ideas because of something like this.

    Of course, I could be completely wrong, and she’s simply not that good of a worker–and there’s even some potential red flags in how she’s reacting to you expressing disapproval. Allison and everyone else in the comments covered what to do if that’s the case. But it’s possible she just needs a good nudge towards self-learning in the digital age.

  32. soon 2be former fed

    Age has absolutely nothing to do with this. Ageism sucks. I appreciate OP wanting to be aware, but I caution against blaming any negative performance characteristics on age. Sixty isn’t that old anyway, I’m 62 and one of the most nimble and responsive persons in my org. Communicate with this worker to directly address the issues and stop comparing her to others based on perceived age. That’s no good.

  33. Samata

    Reading through the article here I basically had the same thought that Alison expressed in the article: She’s told you she’s “desperate” for the job, but she also hasn’t taken you up on pretty easy ways to improve her performance (like volunteering for ideas you send around, after she complained she can’t come up with her own).

    I think it’s great OP is being thoughtful about his actions, but I read this as the woman knowing she has him and just has to play the pity card for job security.

    I do work with 2 women in their late 50s who told me at a happy hour once that they pretty much did the minimum required because “I can do whatever I want, I’m basically untouchable at my age”. And then one of them got fired shortly after.

  34. Jennifer

    I had a coworker in her 60’s like this, and a boss in her 60’s that had NO issues dealing with technology and getting things done. It’s a personality issue, not an age issue.

  35. Anonymous Canadian

    This specific letter just got more attention, well, in my neck of the woods anyways. The Social (a talk show in Canada) just mentioned this letter for one of their discussions on today’s (April 18) episode!

      1. KarenT

        I haven’t seen the episode myself but The Social posts their episodes online, so you can view it for free if you like.

  36. JSPA

    If you want to bend over backwards for her, run though these thoughts.

    1. burnout, almost by definition, is cumulative. Ask her what would make the job feel “new” for her, and re-engage her.

    2. She may have written more and read more than most of your other staff. Perhaps she’s painfully aware that nothing she writes is truly original (in the creative sense) and this may also create worries that she could be setting herself up for unintentional plagiarism. You could deal with this head-on by asking her to intentionally go outside her topic comfort zone once or twice, so that she’s unlikely to self plagiarize. You could ask her about, and if needed, address any plagiarism fear by directing her to tools that check for similarity in published work.

    3. She may be writing the Great American Novel on the side, or read a lot. Ask her what non-work writing she enjoys, and what she likes to read; there may be space in whatever you’re doing for something “in the voice of” that would pull on her interested and tickle her fancy.

    4. This is not age related, of course, but she may have some ailment, diagnosed or not, physical or otherwise, that limits her productivity. You can’t ask about it, but you can ask whether greater use of (say) speech-to-text tools might “unplug her creativity” and “get her mind flowing.”

    5. Depending how long you’ve managed her, and how that compares to the period of her dark night of the soul / deaths in the family, decide on a time frame (or give her a time out for a week, and tell her you hope she comes back refreshed).

    And then… fire her anyway, if none of this stuff works.

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