Fight Ageism, Fuel Growth with Inclusive Hiring & Retention

by | Feb 15, 2024 | Career Development, Diversity and Inclusion, Ethics, Human Resources, Human Resources Management, I-O Psychology | 0 comments

Age Bias Hurts Your Business

I’ll just say it, “Job hunting sucks!” For people in the EEOC-protected class of workers over the age of 40 — those Gen Xers and Baby Boomers — the problem compounds. Studies show that employment rates sharply drop after the age of 45 (OECD/Generation, 2023).

I’m writing this article around my 48th birthday. Since I’ve shown a little grey in my beard, I can verify from my experience that some hiring managers do not look favorably on older workers, especially job seekers.

  • In 2022, at the age of 46, I interviewed for a marketing executive position with a tool manufacturer. After five or so interviews, the hiring manager stated that they wanted a “digital native.” I responded that I held a certification in digital marketing and had a history of early adoption of technology throughout my career. His response, “Okay, but we think someone younger has been immersed in technology.” The interview ended.
  • In 2023, at the age of 47, I attained a role in a family-owned business after shaving my beard prior to the interview. I interviewed with several members of the team, including the parent of one of the executives. I allowed my typical goatee to return, and, on the first meeting with the team, this individual grimaced and said they didn’t remember me having a beard and that it made me look very old.

More recently, I received a rejection notice with a contact name and email address (an anomaly to be sure within the hiring world). When I requested feedback, I received the following response:

Thanks for reaching out. For the positions we are currently hiring for, they are more entry level with 2–7 years experience. Sorry I couldn’t be of more help. Wish you all the best!

Let’s break this last one down:

  1. I met the job requirements listed on their hiring page, which outlines the colleges from which they recruit:
    * They wanted someone who uses data and analysis to make decisions — CHECK!
    * They wanted someone who has a desire to make a difference — CHECK!
    * They wanted practice experience with a substantial understanding of their clients’ industries — CHECK!
    * They wanted someone with strong leadership skills and a history of motivating others — CHECK!
  2. 2–7 years does not constitute “entry-level” experience
  3. The salary range fit my expectations.

In this case, I perceive the organization as seeking someone who has recently graduated from a target university between the ages of 24 and 29.

Today’s workplace strives to employ DEI strategies to foster innovation, employee satisfaction, and a competitive edge. However, amidst these efforts, a subtle yet pervasive form of discrimination lingers, which bears recognition due to its impact on work: ageism. This bias, predicated on age, undermines the principles of equity and diversity with potential ethical issues. Furthermore, it poses significant challenges for older members of the workforce, particularly affecting their employment opportunities, job security, and professional development.

Ageism’s Pervasive Impact

Educational and Training Disparities

Studies show a direct correlation between lower levels of education and training and decreased employment rates (OECD/Generation, 2023). This dynamic highlights a systemic challenge wherein older workers may find themselves disadvantaged due to the shifting demands of industries that now prioritize newer educational qualifications and technological skills. While training and development correlate strongly with self-efficacy, older workers participate less in training-related activities, which may put them at a disadvantage (Li et al, 2022).

The Plight of Workers Aged 45–64

Workers aged 45–64 account for a substantial portion of long-term unemployment, with many struggling to re-enter the workforce. The impact of this challenge extends beyond the individuals, touching their families and contributing to wider economic and societal issues. They often face unfounded stereotypes suggesting they are less adaptable, not as technologically adept, or unable to contribute meaningfully to dynamic work environments despite ample evidence to the contrary (Becker & Fiske, 2022).

SHRM’s Alarming Findings

A report by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) sheds light on a troubling reality: nearly one-third of HR professionals acknowledge that age plays a role in employment decisions (2023). This revelation underscores the prevalence of ageism and signals an urgent need for systemic changes within organizations to address and mitigate these biases. Even if managers make hiring decisions based on implicit bias — unconscious attitudes and associations that individuals hold about specific groups — leaders should find ways to include older workers (Becker & Fiske, 2022).

The Risk of Losing Institutional Knowledge

According to human capital theory, organizations derive their value through the people who work there. However, those workers loan their respective value to the organizations they serve, and they take that value with them when they leave (Jiang & Messersmith, 2018). Organizations risk the loss of valuable human capital with the attrition of experienced workers (Eisenberg, 2024). Specifically, the EEOC-protected class of workers aged 40 and above — and among them mainly those of retirement age above the age of 60 — threaten the value of organizations when they leave workplaces either through retirement, through the perception of a lack of technological competence, or through a lack of job satisfaction. Furthermore, because of stereotypes and biases, when they leave organizations, this class of workers often find it difficult to secure employment in new positions, particularly those involving technology.

Strategies for Combating Ageism

Promote Lifelong Learning and Development

To address ageism, workplaces can foster an environment where leadership and employees embrace lifelong learning and professional development. Providing training programs accessible and relevant to employees of all ages with clear ties to career paths can bridge gaps in knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs). Furthermore, as older workers have entered into a life stage where many wish to express generativity — passing their knowledge to the next generation — encouraging mentorship programs that facilitate the exchange of experience from older employees and fresh perspectives and technological savvy from younger ones can foster mutual respect and understanding.

Implement Inclusive Hiring Practices

When employers promote inclusive hiring practices, they take important and meaningful action toward counteracting ageism. Organizations should begin with job analysis performed by trained I-O Psychology professionals. Then, they should review all job descriptions and recruitment materials to eliminate language and criteria that may disproportionately disadvantage older candidates. Furthermore hiring managers and HR professionals should undergo regular training to recognize and challenge their unconscious biases to ensure that they base employment decisions on merit and potential rather than age.

Create Age-Diverse Teams

Building teams that include members from various age groups enriches the workplace with diverse perspectives and ideas. Such age-diverse teams are more innovative and representative of society, better equipping them to meet the needs of a diverse customer base. Furthermore, helping people feel safe expressing their viewpoints, their culture, and their beliefs — no matter their age — may foster group identification and commitment while avoiding the risks of groupthink. Most older workers feel employers should do more to counteract ageism (AARP, 2021).

Establish Clear Policies Against Age Discrimination

Many employee handbooks establish clear, actionable policies against age discrimination. These policies should permeate the company culture beyond just onboarding and glossing over the handbook with regular training to educate employees on ageism and its impacts. Additionally, executives should ensure that the company has mechanisms for addressing age discrimination complaints and that all employees feel valued and respected, irrespective of age.

Ageism in the workplace demands a comprehensive approach to identify it and remediate it. By fostering lifelong learning, embracing inclusive hiring practices, creating age-diverse teams, and establishing robust policies against age discrimination, workplaces can significantly mitigate the effects of ageism. Achieving a work environment where individuals of all ages have the opportunity to excel and contribute to their fullest potential not only enhances diversity and inclusivity but also bolsters innovation and competitiveness.

References

AARP. (2021). As Economy Improves, Age Discrimination Continues to Hold Older Workers Back. https://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/research/surveys_statistics/econ/2021/older-workers-age-discrimination-covid-19-pandemic-infographic.doi.10.26419-2Fres.00445.003.pdf?mkt_tok=MjUwLUNRSC05MzYAAAGMMDJySC1jBGdslPw2nH7zICVwKX7ZfzP-a4Dk2W7iY1FFWHDEv0xwJ1OMRqtIwfS540hXB4VqPGJWVB5LrQROAuaQmI5sMYZqv3SvTiHbxz_Mug

Becker, T. & Fiske, S.T. (2022). Age Discrimination, One Source of Inequality. Understanding the Aging Workforce: Defining a Research Agenda. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK588538/

Eisenberg, R. (2024). A ‘massive brain drain’ is looming as boomers and Gen X-ers retire. Can flextirement help workers and businesses? MarketWatch. https://www.marketwatch.com/story/a-massive-brain-drain-is-looming-as-boomers-and-gen-x-ers-retire-can-flextirement-help-businesses-bcae1a3a

Gilchrist, K. (2021). Gen X workers may be facing the biggest unemployment crisis, study finds. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/07/26/gen-x-workers-may-face-the-biggest-unemployment-crisis-generation.html

Jiang, K., & Messersmith, J. (2018). On the shoulders of giants: a meta-review of strategic human resource management. International Journal of Human Resource Management, 29(1), 6–33. https://doi-org.libauth.purdueglobal.edu/10.1080/09585192.2017.1384930

Li, Y., Turek, K., Henkens, K., & Wang, M. (2022). Retaining retirement-eligible older workers through training participation: The joint implications of individual growth need and organizational climates. Journal of Applied Psychology. https://doi-org.libauth.purdueglobal.edu/10.1037/apl0001065.supp

Lin, S.-T., Sun, J.-H., & Chen, C.-J. (2020). Re-enter the job market: job satisfaction and career transition competency among middle-aged and older adults. Educational Gerontology, 46(12), 774–784. https://doi-org.libauth.purdueglobal.edu/10.1080/03601277.2020.1824696

OECD/Generation. (2023). The Midcareer Opportunity: Meeting the Challenges of an Ageing Workforce. You Employed, Inc. https://www.generation.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/10/The-Midcareer-Opportunity-Oct2023.pdf

Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM). (2023). New SHRM Research Details Age Discrimination in the Workplace. https://www.shrm.org/about/press-room/new-shrm-research-details-age-discrimination-workplace

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