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.

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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.

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