Getting the Most Out of Your Seasoned Employees

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By Mary Lloyd

Dealing with poor performance from any age employee requires wisdom. With older workers, there's the extra challenge of not assuming it's inevitable. Current thinking is that older workers are going to be less effective with every day they live and that there's nothing you can do about it. But before you dismiss all that talent, explore whether the problem is your fault-and reversible.

When any employee falls below the line on performance, you're likely to give them some time to figure it out on their own. If it goes on too long, you address it. Once you do, things get back on track. If that doesn't occur, you start down the road toward termination or demotion.

But with older workers, it's easy to assume that the inadequate performance you're beginning to notice is a function of aging. If that's the case, "wait and see" is not going to help. You jump immediately to the "termination or demotion" thinking.

But is it really the fact that this person is getting older that's at the heart of the problem? Or is it that you've already written him off to age and are not expecting-much less asking-enough of him or her?

Do They Know They Aren't Cutting It?
When you've been doing the work for a long time, you know the shortcuts. You understand the context so problem solving is easier. You get used to not working as hard because you have these two advantages. Life is easy and no one is complaining. It's easy, but not particularly satisfying. But you keep going-out of loyalty or an unwillingness to start over in a new place so late in the game. You don't realize you aren't doing all that you need to be doing because no one's told you that.

So for starters, when an older worker isn't performing at the level you need, give them that feedback.

But when you do, pretend you're talking to someone who just turned 40. Much of what's offered as "feedback" to older workers is patronizing crap. Your message needs the subtext of believing they can do it. There's a good chance that sincere, performance- specific feedback will get things back on track-just like it does with younger workers. It might even spur your former superstar to amazing new levels of achievement.

If you're facing a situation where the worker really can't meet the demands of the job, it's still not something either of you want to be "stuck" with. This person has value, and your job is to use it wisely. Sometimes these dilemmas (whether caused by age or a car accident) provide a strategic nudge for work redesign that dramatically improves the entire company's performance.

Are You Challenging Them?

For some, the lack of enthusiasm is because the work is no longer demanding. They aren't getting the chance to learn new things or address new challenges. Older workers are more likely to mark time in place than jump ship as they would have earlier in their careers. But the problem doesn't stem from their lack of desire to perform. They coast because that's all you're asking of them.

Quite often, companies stop offering workers additional training after a certain age assuming the training dollars will be wasted when they retire a few years later. These days, it's entirely reasonable to work until you are 70 or beyond. Keeping every worker current is a smarter move. And if your older workers seem to be going stale, challenge them to take on new projects and think beyond what they've been doing. You might be very pleasantly surprised.

Are You Training Them Effectively?

A check mark for having taken a new class means nothing if the class wasn't effective. New technology is harder to learn when it comes later on a career trajectory. That is not because older people can't learn. The quality of the teaching is the issue here. We venerate technological expertise at the expense of making sense to those who are trying to learn the material.

Instead of assuming that your older workers are too old to "get it," take a look at how you are teaching those technology upgrades. Is the instructor someone who grasps the needs of the students or just someone who's good with the technology?

Making sure people understand why everyone needs to use the upgrade, how it benefits the company, and the role they personally play in that success are all essential pieces of good instruction for an older worker. Actually, it's more effective for any age student. At a minimum, insist your instructors teach in the language of the class instead of expecting students to be fluent in Geek!

Assuming people can't do more on the job because of their age is like deciding your car needs to be junked because it won't start one morning. Do some troubleshooting. You may discover you just haven't turned the key properly.