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Ageism in the Workplace: Its Impact and How to Prevent It

For many of us, age is just a number. Growing older doesn’t negatively impact our performance, productivity or skills. Unfortunately, several companies don’t see things this way. While the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) forbids ageism in the workplace, employers consistently discriminate against older workers.

When businesses judge candidates based on age, they miss out on a highly experienced talent pool, as well as the unique benefits and skills older workers can bring. Read on to learn how ageism occurs in the workplace, the damaging effects it can have on company culture and how to prevent ageism within your business.

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What is ageism in the workplace?

Ageism in the workplace is when a candidate or employee is discriminated against because of their age. Although ageism can be experienced by both younger and older workers, it most commonly impacts those who are over 45 years of age. It includes anything from denying applicants because they’re close to retirement to giving an older employee’s responsibilities to a younger worker.

Ageism in workplace settings is driven by inaccurate stereotypes about older employees being slow, stubborn and inexperienced with technology. It can show up in any of the following:

  • Job descriptions
  • Interviews
  • Employee meetings
  • Social events

Discriminating against employees because of their age isn’t just unfair. It also negatively impacts the work environment. When you deny someone a chance because of their age, you reinforce negative stereotypes and potentially lose a great employee.

Benefits of hiring older workers

Workplace age discrimination stems from misconceptions about the abilities and dedication of older workers. In reality, there are several benefits to hiring and retaining employees of all ages. Here are a few key advantages of obtaining older employees.

Increased loyalty

While young professionals may be open to different career paths, older workers typically have a more established idea of what they want to do. According to a 2019 BLS survey, baby boomers (those born between 1957 and 1964) had approximately 12 jobs from ages 18 to 52; however, nearly half of these jobs were held before age 25. This indicates that, as workers age, they’re more likely to remain with the same company.

Valuable experience

Many older workers have spent decades building industry-relevant experience and skills. Employing people with high levels of expertise can enhance your business and even help improve the skills of less-experienced workers. It’s common for older employees to serve as workplace mentors.

In addition to accumulating experience, older workers often establish networks of clients and contacts that can prove useful to your business. For example, if you run a marketing firm, hiring an employee who has connections with potential marketing clients could pay off in the future.

Different perspectives and ideas

Like race, gender, religion and sexual orientation, age is an important factor in building diverse teams. Increased workplace diversity has been linked to higher creativity, employee engagement and productivity.

Maintaining a diverse workplace also encourages multiple viewpoints, which leads to better decision-making and problem-solving. For example, the perspective of a 60-year-old can provide insight that a younger employee may not. Having more perspectives in the office boosts the potential for innovation and success.

Ageism examples in the workplace

Ageism at the workplace isn’t always obvious. Many employers unintentionally alienate older workers throughout the hiring process. To attract candidates of all ages, it’s important to recognize different types of ageism during recruitment.

Job descriptions

Age discrimination in job descriptions can be clear. For example, some companies may advertise that they’re looking for young workers or recent college graduates. However, in other cases, ageist language can be subtle. Code words for age bias include the following:

  • Fresh
  • Tech-savvy
  • Digital native
  • Flexible
  • Energetic
  • Active
  • High-potential

If you have any of these words in your job descriptions, consider removing them, so you can appeal to a larger applicant base.

Applicant screening

Age bias in the screening stage is more common than many employers realize. You may be inadvertently promoting ageism if you reject applicants for the following reasons:

  • Having a college graduation date from over 20 years ago
  • Submitting a resume longer than three pages
  • Lacking a social media presence
  • Using an email address that ends in @hotmail.com or @aol.com

To make sure your screening process is inclusive, consider all candidates. Don’t ask for milestone dates on applications, such as graduation year, and be open to resumes of varying lengths. Furthermore, don’t assume that an applicant doesn’t have the right skills or will resist learning based on an outdated email or lack of social media. Many older workers are comfortable with change and eager to take on new challenges.

Interviewing

Age discrimination is most prominent during the interview process. Many employers subtly judge candidates by asking the following questions:

  • When do you expect to retire?
  • Are you comfortable working for a younger manager?
  • Can you keep up with our company’s technology demands?
  • Where do you see yourself in five or 10 years?
  • Do you have any chronic diseases or other health issues?

To combat ageism in interviews, avoid asking questions related to a person’s age, such as questions about their birth year or graduation date. If possible, use an age-diverse interview panel and ask each candidate the same interview questions. This gives everyone gets a fair chance to impress.

What does ageism in the workplace look like?

Even if a company takes steps to reduce ageism during the hiring process, discrimination may still occur within the office. Let’s look at some examples of age discrimination in workplace settings and how you can prevent them.

Ignoring older candidates for promotions

Workplace incentives, such as raises, bonuses and promotions, are typically a reflection of an individual’s job performance. However, they may indicate ageism if you’re frequently passing up older workers in favor of younger workers.

To determine if you have an ageism problem, conduct an audit of pay, bonus and promotion statistics. Then, examine your employee evaluation process to ensure it’s standardized across all workers with similar job functions.

Making false assumptions

Many preconceived notions about older workers, such as older people being bad with technology, are false. However, if you don’t address them, it can lead to older employees being denied opportunities. Here are some ways stereotypes might guide a manager’s decisions:

  • Assigning a project to a younger employee because it involves technology
  • Refusing to train an employee or give them learning opportunities
  • Assuming an older employee holds certain opinions or political beliefs.

To prevent prejudices from depriving older workers of opportunities, carefully evaluate everyone’s job responsibilities. If you notice older employees are consistently denied certain projects, talk to your supervisors. It may also help to provide skills-based training sessions for all workers.

Blatant harassment and ageist remarks

Ageism can manifest in the form of playful teasing about someone’s age, appearance or retirement plans. It could also be more aggressive, such as pressuring an employee to retire or calling them over-the-hill or ancient.

If you notice employees making jokes or comments about someone’s age, it’s important to take action. Clearly communicate your policies on anti-harassment. If issues continue, consider creating a diversity training program or reaching out to your legal team for advice.

Unfair disciplinary action

Disproportionate disciplinary action is a common tactic used by employers who want to get rid of an older employee but don’t have a fair reason to fire them. Instead, they’ll unfairly reprimand the worker to reduce their job responsibilities or even encourage them to quit. Here are a few examples:

  • Maintaining unreasonably high standards for older employees
  • Only letting younger employees get away with mistakes
  • Yelling or taking away benefits after a minor mistake

These issues usually stem from management positions. Before hiring someone for a supervisor position, ensure they’re educated about age discrimination.

Isolating older workers

When you plan company events and outings that are highly active, such as paintball tournaments or kayaking, you may be excluding older workers with physical limitations. Instead, opt for team-building activities that can be enjoyed by people of all ages, such as a cooking class or egg-drop challenge.

Even though ageism often goes unnoticed, it can negatively impact every aspect of your business. Being mindful of how age discrimination shows up in the hiring process and workplace is the first step to stopping it.

FAQs about ageism in the workplace

Can a company favor older workers over younger ones?

While the ADEA prevents employers from exclusively providing special benefits to younger workers, these rules don’t apply the other way around. However, there are state laws that restrict companies from discriminating against younger employees. In general, you should avoid treating any employee differently on the basis of age.

Can I get in legal trouble for ageism?

Because there are federal laws against age discrimination, an employee can sue a company if they feel they’ve been judged due to their age. Most of these lawsuits are directed toward companies that actively mistreat older employees. However, even letting bad behavior from other employees go unnoticed can be grounds for a lawsuit.

Who can I work with to encourage age diversity?

Since age discrimination usually begins at the hiring stage, you should collaborate with your internal hiring managers or external recruiters to ensure there are no biases. You can also work together to host diversity training for new hires. When you intentionally implement inclusive hiring practices, you’re setting your business up to be more innovative, productive and successful.

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