I recently accepted a very low-paying job at a higher-education institution I have always wanted to work for. Although this role is very important to the institution, I didn’t know until I received my formal offer outlining salary and benefits that it was considered entry level. I’m trying to maintain a positive outlook and think of this role as a stepping stone to get where I want to be in my career. Another reason I wanted to work for the institution is that they offer free tuition for dependents, and I have twin teenagers who will graduate high school in two years.
The thing is, so many people that I work with directly are younger than me (aged 25 to 30) and are very immature, loud, and unprofessional (jokes, long lunch breaks, attire, etc.). I’m 38 (and very proud!), and feel like I was hired because I’m a little bit older and more mature. The supervisors do not address the other employees’ behavior, and while they haven’t approached me about it directly, I feel like they look to me to develop or model for the younger people in the office. I hate feeling like this, and I don’t want to remain in this low-paying job.
What should I do?
First and foremost, congratulations on getting a position at an institution that you’ve been wanting to work for. I understand how competitive the interview process can be, having worked at prestigious universities during my time in higher education. You got your foot in the door; even though the salary is low, with the added benefit of tuition remission for your two children, this move is likely a winning situation.
Now, about your office environment. Thirty-eight is not old, and if you were feeling discriminated against due to your age, we’d be having a very different conversation. You may never know the exact reason why your manager hired you, but your guess may be somewhat accurate. While a manager generally doesn’t hire someone to model behavior in an office environment, they may hire someone more experienced to lighten their own workload and serve as a successor in their role.
Knowing that your co-workers aren’t conducting themselves in a professional manner — and may not be thinking about their next career move — use this opportunity to step up. There are two ways you could approach this situation: Do nothing and use their immature behavior to your advantage, or address the issue head on.
Option one allows you to focus on your job and position yourself for your next role in the institution. I believe your age is an advantage in a workplace that skews younger, because you can leverage experiences that your peers haven’t had yet to move to the next level. Ask yourself the following questions:
1. Are there projects or processes that can be improved at my workplace?
2. What projects do my managers find the most stressful and challenging?
3. Do my interests align with the needs of the institution?
If you’re unsure what those needs are, schedule a meeting to ask. Aligning your interests with the needs of the institution and your manager helps position you as a leader and an asset to the team.
Alternatively, you can address your colleagues’ behavior and take an active part in improving the office environment. I’d be curious to know if your managers are okay with their conduct; having a laissez-faire attitude may just be how the organization operates. I’ve consulted and worked for companies where everyone runs ten minutes late and lunches last 60 to 90 minutes, even if the employee handbook says these breaks should be 45 to 60 minutes long. Many companies are trying to create an environment where people can come to work as their most authentic self. To some, that may be jarring and go against “traditional workplace norms,” while to others, it’s exciting that their workplace is more casual and informal.
I recommend having a conversation with your manager in which you ask questions about the norms in the workplace, versus pointing fingers at your new colleagues. You don’t want to come across as the disgruntled employee who’s not down with how the office is being run. If your manager notes that they are working to address the team members’ behavior, ask how you can assist in making the office a better workplace for all.
If they indicate that the office environment is just fine, however, this would be the time to tell your manager how distracting it is for you. Keep the focus on how your colleagues’ behavior affects your work and propose solutions. If one of your peers coming back late from lunch impacts scheduled meetings, say so. If it annoys you because you just wish everyone would adhere to the rules, then you can skip this piece of feedback.
I also recommend finding ways to insulate yourself from some of the literal and figurative noise. When I transitioned from higher education to corporate finance, I went from having an office with a door I could close to working in an open floor plan. I hated it. I sat next to recruiters who were on the phone all day long, and sometimes I could barely hear myself think. I started working from meeting rooms, the lounge in the lobby of my floor, and even the cafeteria during off-hours. I interacted with my team members when I needed to but then removed myself so I could get my work done in peace.
You can only control yourself and your own behavior. Your goal in this role is to get in and move up! Keep your eyes on the prize and don’t allow anyone or anything to distract you from that objective.
Career and leadership-development expert Kimberly Brown helps readers make sure their next move is the best move, here, every other Wednesday. Have a question for her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org (and read our submission terms here). Listen to the Your Next Move podcast here.