How I responded to “How old are you?” in front of an entire company

How can employees handle superiors’ attacks with grace and strength?

What happened?

I joined a startup where on my first day the founder purchased a copy of the book How Google Works for every employee to encourage our adoption of a flat hierarchical structure. Everyone was invited to give feedback without listening to the “HiPPOs. The Highest-Paid-Person’s-Opinion”.

Shortly after, the entire company was invited to a open-forum discussion about the branding of our company. The discussion was lead by the communications consultant, who was a close contact and friend of our CEO. At that point, I trusted our CEO and our company. I had a lot of enthusiasm for our product.

He asked the group if we knew what the acronym of the company stood for, and we all unanimously responded what we had all been told upon being hired. He corrected us, and we wanted to know why but he struggled to explain. Since I had some experience working in brand consulting, I tried to make the conversation more constructive by asking him a more precise question, “As you mentioned, branding changes are a response to a desire to appear to priority stakeholders. Perhaps you can tell us more about who our priority stakeholders are and why this is a better way of communicating our mission statement?”

After he answered with a list of who our (long) list of priority stakeholders were, I followed up to clarify “Of these top stakeholders that we want to reach with our brand, which are the top three you mentioned and how should we talk about our mission statement to them?”

That’s when he started to react rather strangely.
In front of everyone, he asked me “who is your boss” and “who has the power to fire or hire you” and “what is your role at this company”
That was bizarre enough already, but no one stopped him and there was no easy exit to the way the conversation was being lead.

He then asked me “why I cared about marketing” to which I responded sincerely about how my decision to join the company was very visible to my network, so as a startup the way I and any employee in the room chose to speak about the company could shape opportunities for the company. I and everyone else in the room was probably hoping he would was going to make a clever point. Instead, he proceeded in a series of questions that increasingly appeared to be attempts to discredit me based on experience and age.
“Are you a marketing expert?” (yes)
“Have you ever worked at a startup?” (yes)
“How old are you?” (…)

For a company that was trying to avoid becoming a “tenurocracy,” his conduct (and our executives’ lack of instant response to cut him off) damaged not only my trust in the maturity of our culture, but also the founder’s intended expression for the desired culture.

How did you respond?

After he asked me my age, I paused with silence, because I did not need to answer this question.
I asked him why he was trying to discredit me in response to a simple question looking for ways to talk about our mission statement.

I felt like he was trying to embarrass me, and struck by the fact that no one in the room was willing or daring enough to step up and stop him from trying to do so. I had done my best to compose myself, which afterwards I heard left a strong positive impression with the rest of the company because I was able to hold my own. Good for me, but what about the company?

I had two conversations with senior executives afterwards. They both accused me of provoking him, which made me feel angry and hurt. Thankfully several other colleagues came to my support and shut down that notion in my conversations with them. They were aware that I had been attacked, and I was not to blame. Additionally, they felt that the supervisors and executives failed in shutting down the attack or responding appropriately.

I took that afternoon off to recover, and in the morning I met with my CTO. He was highly supportive, and helped me coordinate a meeting with the CEO and other executives to communicate my request for a direct company-wide response email from the CEO about the incident. Shortly after, the CEO sent out an email condemning the incident to the entire company. I’m grateful they took my advice because I think they were all shocked by the outcome, but thankfully I feel that was the best action we could have taken that day at that time. Despite not issuing any apologies however, the consultant continued to work at our company.

What were your takeaways in hindsight?

My takeaways from this event was that grace and strength in character is the best practice IN the moment. I had a wonderful sales supervisor once who told me that I should never bow down to an aggressive or violent customer, that she will always be at my side. Thanks to her advice given long ago, this was a type of moment I was prepared for and I encourage anyone else who is threatened by attempts to publicly humiliate them to stand up for themselves with as much elegance and zero aggression as possible.

My other takeaway is that leaders who stand up for their team at the right moments will be trusted as great leaders. There will always be more that we can do, but culture is a fragile concept that we must constantly and consciously nurture. This event was a wakeup call to how impactful these small, traumatic events (and how we deal with them) can be on a company’s culture if we do nothing in response. A company’s response (or lack thereof) will determine how employees trust management. This event, although painful, has inspired me to continue learning how to empower others to stay positive and proactive in response to emotional events in the workplace.

Watercolor by Charlotte Goff

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