Should a youthful appearance prevent an employee from being promoted?

In this edition of In the Trenches, Acme wonders if an employees' age should affect their advancement.

Unlike other kids her age, Kathy Ambitious decided she didn't want a career as a computer programmer, accountant or architect. She didn't see herself spending the entire day sitting behind a desk. "I need a job where I can move around and have different things to do every day," she told her best friend.

In addition, she liked working with her hands and fixing things. As a child, one of her favorite activities was helping her dad rebuild his aging Corvette on Sunday afternoons.

So while the other students of Big High School were applying to faraway colleges and universities, Ambitious decided to stay close to home and enroll in the local community college, which offered an extensive industrial arts program.

Before completing her two-year degree in 1997, Ambitious joined Acme, a large chemical manufacturer, as a part-time apprentice.

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At first, she found the climate in Acme's maintenance department to be somewhat intimidating. The department's 50 employees seemed to belong one clique or another, and none of them seemed willing to accept her. Furthermore, it was an all-male society, which didn't help things either.

But Ambitious didn't mind. She was learning while earning. And she found herself enjoying the work she was performing.

Before long, Ambitious was hired as a full-time Acme employee, thanks to Phil Mentor, the plant's maintenance department superintendent. Mentor liked her work habits and dedication to the job. He was impressed with her technical skills, and felt she would eventually make an excellent supervisor.

To help groom her for a supervisory role, he teamed her up with Jerry Expertise, a 28-year senior maintenance technician. Expertise became impressed with her talents and attitude. "That kid works hard," he told Mentor. "And she's willing to learn and listen. There's a lot of people around here who don't do that."

"I know exactly what you mean," Mentor responded.

As time went on, her male colleagues began to accept her as well. For many of them, Ambitious was just "one of the guys" assigned to the maintenance department.

Ambitious continued her education on a part-time basis, earning a degree in engineering in just three years. In addition, she attended nearly every maintenance seminar program she could find. "I really enjoy this line of work," she told Mentor on several occasions.

Ambitious is young, and there is no reason why she should not look it. Certainly, her male colleagues have accepted her.

– Julie Badel, Partner, Epstein Becker & Green, P.C.

After four short years, Mentor felt the time was right to move the 24-year-old Ambitious into a supervisor's role. He discussed the promotion with several of his supervisors. All of them agreed it was a good move.

"At first, I wasn't sure Kathy would make it," said Bill Oversight, Kathy's first supervisor. "But she's proven to be an excellent technician."

"She's also very good at teaching the proper techniques and procedures to the new hires," added Larry Command, Ambitious' current supervisor.

When Mentor informed Kathy of his plans, she was quite excited about the promotion. "Before I can officially promote you, you have to be interviewed by Paul Stubborn, our maintenance director," he told her.

The next day, Stubborn interviewed Ambitious at length about becoming the supervisor. Just as she was leaving Stubborn's office, Mentor stopped in to see how things were proceeding. She overheard Mentor ask Stubborn if he was going to approve the promotion.

"I've got no problem promoting a woman to a supervisor's role," grumbled Stubborn. "In fact, the corporate bigwigs have been on our case to promote more women and other minorities to supervisory and management positions. But Ambitious looks way too young to be an effective supervisor."

"Too young?" said Mentor.

"Yeah, too young. She looks like she's about 16 years old. How can she possibly lead and supervise men two or three times her age?"

"But she's proven to be one of our best technicians," countered Mentor. "She's made it a point to take additional courses and seminars to improve her knowledge base. And she's good at teaching other team members on how to do things."

"I don't care," responded Stubborn. "She still looks too young for the job."

Ambitious couldn't believe what she was hearing. She quickly ducked down one of the corridors to avoid coming into contact with Mentor as he left Stubborn's office.

A few weeks later, Ambitious was informed that her promotion was on hold. When she inquired why, Mentor gave a rather vague answer.

How should Ambitious handle this situation? Should she contact the human resources department and discuss what she overheard? How should Mentor handle this? Should he go to HR and make the case for Ambitious?

An academician's response:

Somebody should tell Paul Stubborn that management strategy and manager/supervisor promotion is all about performance and not about how old one looks. The question is whether Kathy Ambitious can deliver the results. When Bill Gates founded Microsoft (I thought) he looked like he was straight out of Junior High, four years away from his first shave, and talked like a 13 year old with a bad case of post nasal drip. In spite of his peach fuzz and drip, did he produce, or did he produce? That's what it is all about, baby! It is all about getting results. That's the number 1 reason for selecting a new manager or supervisor, and it is also number 2, 3 and 4 reasons. So, let's decide if Kathy has the "stuff" to deliver, and not worry about how old she looks.

But I suppose if Paul hasn't learned that message by now, he probably ain't going to get it. So, what can Phil and Kathy do at this point, other than sending Kathy to a doctor to get whatever is the opposite of a face lift (a face drop?) to make her look older? I like the Jack Welch approach (at GE) of telling it like it is. That's why I would advise Kathy to let Phil know that she overheard the conversation between Paul and him, and is very upset that her looks, not her ability, is blocking her promotion. Phil's her friend and mentor, so why keep secrets from him? Maybe Kathy only heard part of the conversation and Paul has other, perhaps more serious and valid, issues. Whatever, let's start being honest with each other and find out what Phil thinks she should do.

I also think Phil has to hash it out with Paul before anyone else gets involved. Phil must at least pretend that he is a leader and go back to Paul and tell him in no uncertain terms that Kathy has the stuff as well as the support of others, and she deserves a chance. And give Paul some solid reasons for why she is the one. Most new supervisors go through a probationary period, and if she doesn't cut it, she can be replaced. So, Paul's risk is minimal.

If Kathy gets turned down, it's Paul's job to explain why to her and hopefully to provide some constructive coaching. It was Paul's decision to nix the promotion and thus his responsibility to explain it. By this time Kathy should have a good idea as to why she has not been promoted, as well as who remembers what about the original (overheard) conversation. If she decides to pursue it with HR or anyone else, she should be well grounded in the "facts" of the case.

Professor Homer H. Johnson, Ph.D., Loyola University Chicago
(312) 915-6682

An attorney's response:

Acme is being foolish, as usual, in rejecting an extremely well qualified candidate for a supervisor position for a frivolous reason,that she "looks" too young. Ambitious is young, and there is no reason why she should not look it. Certainly, her male colleagues have accepted her.

Both Ambitious and Mentor should go to human resources with the problem. That is one of human resources' functions-to solve people problems. The other, of course, is to make certain the company is dealing with its employees in accordance with legal requirements and company policies.

Does Acme have a legal problem here as well? It depends on where Acme is located. Under federal law, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act prohibits discrimination against applicants and employees who are age 40 and older. Refusing to promote Ambitious because of her youth and young looks would not violate the ADEA.

However, some states, Iowa being one of them, have laws that prohibit discrimination against an applicant or employee who is age 18 or over, whether the discrimination disfavors older or younger workers. Municipal and country ordinances across the country may also offer protection against age discrimination for younger workers.

Acme also would do well to review its employee handbook and personnel policies before so blithely rejecting Ambitious for the supervisor position based on her youthful appearance. Most employee handbooks I have seen promise to promote the "best qualified" candidate, and Ambitious certainly sounds like it. Depending on the specific language in an employee handbook, some courts find them enforceable contracts, and Ambitious might have a claim against Acme in this regard as well.

The best policy for Acme is to make employment decisions on the basis of merit, without regard to perceptions about ability based on age, race, sex or any other immutable characteristic of birth.

Julie Badel, Partner, Epstein Becker & Green, P.C.
(312) 499-1418

A maintenance management consultant's response:

Kathy Ambitious deserves the promotion. She already had proven herself to her co-workers, to the 28-year veteran who helped to groom her, by her determination to improve herself through many educational courses, to her direct manager, Bill Oversight, and to his manager, Phil Mentor. The entire problem rests solely on the shoulder of Paul Stubborn, the Maintenance Director, period!

Kathy should definitely approach Phil as to what she overheard in the conversation he had with Paul as she was leaving Stubborn's office, and then she should visit HR and explain to them what she overheard. Phil should likewise discuss the situation with HR and make a case for Kathy's promotion.

The alternative for Kathy, if she is not promoted, is to sue Acme. The wrong alternative for her is either not to get the promotion and stay in her current position or to quit. She deserves the promotion.

Bob Steibly, C.P.E., Steibly & Associates
(802) 747-7220

A corporate consultant's response:

In the first place, no supervisor should ever tell subordinates about plans to promote them. Only after the promotion is approved should the subordinate be informed. Mentor erred in giving Ambitious advance notice of his plan to promote her.

And, given that both Ambitious' boss and Mentor have agreed that she deserves the promotion, why is Stubborn interfering anyway? He's usurping their authority inappropriately.

Next, before putting Ambitious in front of Stubborn, Mentor should have provided Stubborn with the job description and core competencies required for the position to which he wanted to promote Ambitious. He should also have provided Stubborn with the performance reviews on Ambitious, along with a summary of affirming comments from the other supervisors he spoke with about her possible promotion. Only after providing this documentation should the interview with Stubborn have been set up.

If Stubborn's decision remains the same, Mentor should explain to Stubborn that HR will have to be informed, if for no other reason but to leverage Acme's vulnerability to legal action.

If Stubborn still doesn't budge, Mentor should do two things. First, his fiduciary responsibility to Acme requires that he go to HR and seek advice. Second, his supervisory responsibility to Ambitious requires that he provide her with an honest explanation of what's going on. He should explain to her that he never should have given her advance notice of his plan; that he's working diligently on her behalf and will keep her posted; and that meanwhile, he should ensure the ongoing development of her technical expertise.

Francie Dalton, Dalton Alliances, Inc.
(410) 715-0484