Ageism in the Workplace
In partnership with the Center for Creative Leadership and Thrive HR Exchange, ChapmanCG recently led a series of virtual roundtable sessions across the Asia Pacific region. We were joined by several HR leaders from a variety of industries and cultures to discuss ‘Empathy and Inclusion in the Workplace: Imperatives for Your Diversity Initiatives’. One of the topics that was highlighted throughout these sessions was Ageism in the Workplace.
Diversity, equity, and inclusivity is a major concern for many companies around the world right now—and with good reason. In addition to the major societal conversations taking place around race, gender, and sexuality, diversity in the workplace is a major indicator of success, innovation, and higher revenues. However, one component of workplace diversity that sometimes gets less airtime is age discrimination, or ageism at work.
We wanted to shine the light on this important subject, as well as providing some useful tips on how to integrate age diversity into your workforce planning initiatives.
What is Ageism or Age Discrimination?
Age discrimination is any prejudicial behaviour that targets or discounts a person based on their perceived or real age. This might appear during the hiring process, or it might be in-office discrimination in the form of missed promotions or throwaway comments about productivity. Like with all discrimination, stereotypes about capabilities and motivations are often the driving factor behind age discrimination in the workplace.
In many countries there are laws highlighting that age discrimination is just as unacceptable as discounting a person based on their race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion. It’s an equally protected demographic category. Despite that, however, ageism is among the most common forms of employment discrimination. Over the years, age discrimination has made headline news and has led to high-profile court cases targeting many multinational companies.
Age discrimination can have a variety of negative impacts on an organisation, in addition to the legal implications. It can dramatically limit your talent pool, causing you to miss out on high-quality, very experienced candidates. It can also create a homogenous workforce that lacks a diversity of experience and opinions.
If not actively avoided, all these above factors will ultimately hurt your company culture and your bottom line.
Points to Note:
- People are working later in life than ever before.
- It can be challenging for people above the age of 50 to find new work or even get a call back from a potential employer.
- Most companies don’t currently have a policy regarding age discrimination in place.
- Age diversity is a leading contributor to more productive workplaces.
The reality is that companies not actively promoting age diversity are missing out on a rapidly growing talent pool of highly experienced and qualified individuals and the benefits of multigenerational workforces. Companies without active age discrimination policies in place are also at heightened legal and ethical risk, leaving themselves open for potential complaints and legal situations.
Why Does Age Discrimination Happen?
Before you can identify and fix age discrimination, you need to understand why it happens in the first place. As mentioned, age discrimination is often caused by stereotypes or misconceptions about a specific age group.
Beyond that, there are several other systemic, cognitive, and inadvertent causes of age discrimination.
These might include:
- Unconscious biases against certain age groups from your recruitment team, managers, or staff.
- Overt reinforcement of attributes commonly associated with younger workers and making that a core characteristic of your culture.
- Overemphasis on recruiting for tech prowess rather than deep experience and industry knowledge.
- Overly targeted recruitment campaigns or resource allocation to hire college students or recent graduates.
- Not investing the same time and resources into targeting more experienced workers.
- Using terms and phrases in your recruitment ads that appeal to a specific demographic (such as “digital natives” or “recent graduates”).
- Throwaway comments from employees throughout the organisation that might dismiss or subjugate a fellow worker based on their age or perceived ability.
- Budget constraints that drive companies to hire younger (and often cheaper) candidates.
These are just a few common factors that might lead to age discrimination. This list is by no means exhaustive, and there are likely other contributing factors and examples within individual organisations.
Now that we’ve identified why age discrimination happens, let’s look at some concrete examples.
Age Discrimination Examples
How you write your recruitment ads and job requirements has a big influence on whether a candidate feels welcome or qualified to apply. Using words that appeal primarily to younger audiences is one of the most common forms of subtle age discrimination today. Here are some examples of words or phrases that target young workers:
- “Go-getter”: someone with lots of energy and ambition
- “Enthusiastic”: someone who is highly engaged and willing to go the extra mile
- “Forward-thinking”: someone with new (young) ideas and modern perspectives
- “High-potential”: someone who hasn’t proven themselves yet
- “Digital native”: another term for Millennials or Gen Y candidates
Making Assumptions about Abilities
Assumptions and stereotypes about older workers are the driving force behind explicit and implicit biases in the workplace. Those who have an issue with age discrimination may assume that older workers are slow, unable to embrace new technologies, unwilling to hone their skills, or aren’t forward-thinking enough. These assumptions will often steer recruiters or hire managers away from older candidates, especially if they lack clear policies and training around age discrimination.
Policies and Benefits that Target a Specific Age Demographic
The policies and benefits that a company invests in – and who they benefit – speaks loudly about the culture they’re hoping to build. Building out benefits packages that primarily appeal to Millennials or Gen Y workers is a clear signal to older workers that they are not a priority. To avoid this, companies should include a wide cross-section of their workforce in the conversation about what benefits and perks are most helpful. Strike a balance that appeals to all age groups, not just one.
Stray Remarks at Work
Remarks made to and about older employees is one of the most significant – and costly – examples of age discrimination. This can lead to significant legal issues and negatively impacts culture, morale, engagement, and retention. Comments that reference someone’s age, work style, perspective, speed, or technical abilities can all contribute to a negative culture of age discrimination. This is especially true and problematic if those comments are made in the lead up to termination.
Choice of Words
Lastly, the way in which recruiters and hiring managers reject a candidate often includes purposeful or subconscious references to age and perceived ability. Like with recruitment ads, word choice is crucial when rejecting a candidate.
Describing the candidate as “tired,” “not energetic,” “overqualified,” or “too experienced” are all subtle ways to say the same thing: the candidate was too old for the job.
How to Prevent Age Discrimination at Work
Diversity, equity, and inclusivity in the workplace take a combination of education, policies, and collective effort. The first step in preventing age discrimination is to acknowledge that it likely exists in some capacity within your organisation. The next step is to implement concrete actions that help to alleviate the problem.
Educate about Bias
All recruiters and hiring managers at your organisation should undergo training on explicit and implicit biases. This training should be specifically aimed at identifying and dispelling myths about older workers. Bias training is a powerful tool for recruiters that will help them identify when they are most likely to decide based on their assumptions and how to avoid doing so. This training can be incorporated with your wider diversity hiring training and is applicable to all demographics.
Create the Right Policies
The fight against age discrimination needs to come from the top of your organisation. Leaders must take a stand to call out and dispel ageism across the company for any policy to work. Once top-down leadership has been established, the next step is to review your discrimination policy. Look at what characteristics and demographics are protected and emphasised. If age isn’t included or given equal emphasis compared to others, then that is a good place to start. Re-write your discrimination policy to ensure that age is given equal weight. Make sure that you communicate this new policy clearly to everyone within your organisation. Provide specialist training to ensure that employees have the tools they need to identify and avoid age discrimination situations.
Include Age Diversity in Your Hiring Strategy
Recruiters should take a direct stand against age discrimination in their hiring practices. If your company has a diverse hiring strategy in place already, include age as a distinct demographic. This isn’t to say that you should swing the pendulum the other way and only target older candidates. Instead, it means that you should be aware of and sensitive to how your hiring strategy might appeal to one group of people while alienating another. This will help you create hiring campaigns that appeal to as wide a range of people as possible.
Pay Attention to How You Advertise
Pay close attention to the words you use when advertising a job and avoid terms that target a specific audience.
Showcase a Multigenerational Workforce
Employee branding is a powerful tool for showcasing your company culture and the type of workforce you value. When creating employer branding content, make sure that you show workers of all ages. Videos, images, and testimonials that show a multigenerational workforce are great ways to show potential candidates that they’re welcome, regardless of how many years of experience they may have.
It has been proven time and time again that diverse workforces are successful ones. Diversity comes in many different forms and does not just apply to race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. Age discrimination is alive and well in many industries and organisations across the world. It’s your job as an HR professional, recruiter, business leader, or hiring manager to identify that reality and take the necessary steps to prevent it.
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