Ageism: Examples and Impacts in the Workplace

While age is just a number — not an indicator of performance, education, productivity or skill — ageism is still widespread in the workplace. It can be experienced by both younger and older workers, but most frequently to those who are 45 and over.

 

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Not only is ageism illegal at every stage of employment (e.g., interviewing, promotions, layoffs) but when businesses discriminate based on age they’re missing out on a highly experienced talent pool, as well as a number of other benefits and skills older workers can bring.

 

Below, we’ll cover how ageism plays out in the hiring process and the workplace, the damaging effects it can have on company culture, morale and productivity, as well as ways to prevent ageism within your business.

 

Why is ageism a problem?

Often overlooked compared to other forms of discrimination, ageism is when an applicant, candidate or employee is treated unfairly based on their age. It can take on many forms — from ignoring applicants because they’re “close to retirement” or handing off an older employee’s responsibilities to a younger worker.

 

Ageism is driven by myths and inaccurate stereotypes — such as that older workers are set in their ways, slow and don’t have today’s tech skills. While sometimes hard to spot, age discrimination can show up in job descriptions, interviews, meetings, watercooler talk and other parts of the hiring process and workplace.

 

Why is age discrimination a problem? Like race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and disability, age is an important factor in building diverse teams — which can boost creativity, employee engagement and drive other bottom-line benefits. Excluding older workers can lead to a less productive workforce, a loss of institutional knowledge and low morale.

 

Benefits of hiring older workers

When employers hire and retain older workers, they benefit from the following key advantages:

 

Older workers can be more loyal to their employers and stay at companies longer.

According to a 2019 BLS survey, baby boomers held an average of 12.3 jobs from ages 18 to 52, with nearly half being held before age 25.

 

They can offer a strong set of skills and experience.

Older workers may have decades of industry experience, skills and expertise that is difficult to teach. They could also serve an important role as mentors.

 

They may have strong networks to bring to your business.

Since they’ve been in the workforce longer, older workers may have had more time to establish an extensive network of clients and contacts.

 

They can bring different perspectives and ideas.

Multiple viewpoints leads to better decision-making and problem-solving. The perspective of a 60-year-old, for example, can provide insight that a 25-year-old may not. Research also suggests that multigenerational teams are more productive and have less turnover than teams of the same age.

 

What does ageism look like in the hiring process?

To attract candidates of all ages, it’s important to be aware of the signs of age discrimination in the recruiting and hiring process:

 

Job descriptions

Age discrimintation in job descriptions is sometimes obvious. For instance, when companies advertise that they’re looking for someone young or “a recent college graduate.”

 

However, ageist language can be more subtle. Other code words for age bias that you should consider removing from your job descriptions include:

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

Applicant screening

Age bias in the screening stage is common — and you might not even realize that you’re engaging in it yourself. Are you using any of the following ageist screening practices?

  • Ignoring applicants with a college graduation date over 20 years ago
  • Disregarding applicants with a resume longer than three pages
  • Passing on an applicant because they don’t have a social media presence
  • Rejecting applicants with an email address that ends in @hotmail.com or @aol.com

To make sure your screening process is inclusive, consider all applicants. Don’t ask for milestone dates on applications — such as graduation year — and consider being more open to resumes of all lengths.

 

Additionally, never assume that an applicant doesn’t have the right skills or will resist learning new technologies based on an outdated email or lack of an online presence. Many older workers are comfortable with change and more than eager to take on new challenges.

 

Interviewing

To combat ageism in interviews, it’s good practice to avoid asking any questions related to a person’s age (e.g., birth year, graduation date). Here are a few other interview questions you may want to avoid asking:

  • 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?

Consider using an age-diverse interview panel if possible and ask each candidate the same set of questions so everyone gets a fair chance to impress.

 

What does ageism look like in the workplace?

Let’s take a look at how ageism shows up in the workplace — and the steps you can take to prevent it.

 

Older workers being passed over for raises, bonuses and promotions

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

 

Start by conducting an audit of pay, bonus and promotion statistics across your business to identify if you might have an ageism problem. Then, carefully examine your employee evaluation process to make sure it’s standardized across all employees with similar job functions.

 

Blatant harassment and ageist remarks

Ageism can happen in the form of playful teasing related to someone’s age, plans for retirement, etc. Or it could be more aggressive, such as name-calling (e.g., “over-the-hill” or “ancient”) or pressuring an employee to retire.

 

If you notice employees making frequent jokes or comments about someone’s age, pull them aside and let them know that it’s not okay. Communicate your company policies on anti-harassment, consider creating a diversity training program or reach out to your legal team or an attorney to advise you.

 

Leaving older workers out of company activities and outings

When you plan company activities and outings that only younger people can comfortably take part in — such as paintball tournaments or kayaking — you may be excluding older workers who have 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 has the power to negatively impact every part of your business. Being mindful of how age discrimination shows up in the hiring process and workplace is the first step to stopping it.

 

Next steps? Create specific goals to embrace age diversity, either for your internal hiring managers or external recruiters. When you intentionally implement inclusive hiring practices like this, you’re setting your business up to be more innovative, productive and ultimately, successful.

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