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Age discrimination in the workplace: Facts, examples and how to prevent it

Diversity 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. One component of workplace diversity that sometimes gets less air time, however, is age discrimination

In this article, we’re going to look at what age discrimination is, the factors that lead to it, and explain how you can prevent it in your hiring and daily lives. 

Let’s get started.

What is age discrimination?

Age discrimination is any prejudicial behavior that targets or discounts a person based on their 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.

By law, age discrimination is just as unacceptable as discounting a person based on their race, sex, 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 companies likes Google, PwC, Amazon, Facebook, and Goldman Sachs (to name a few). 

Age discrimination can have a variety of negative impacts on an organization, 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. 

All of these above factors, if not actively avoided, will ultimately hurt your company culture and your bottom line. 

Before we jump into identifying and avoiding age discrimination, let’s look at some convincing facts that illustrate why it’s a problem.

Recognizing and addressing hiring bias in recruitment webinar

7 age discrimination facts you should know

If age discrimination isn’t part of your company’s diversity conversation, then now is a good time to bring it up to your colleagues and managers. 

To do so, it’s helpful to come armed with some real-world statistics about the issue. 

Here are some age discrimination facts that help to frame the problem:

  1. Workers older than 65 now make up the fastest-growing labor segment in the United States. 
  2. 31% of non-retired adults plan to remain employed until the age of 68 or older.
  3. The number of people aged 65 or older who are still working is expected to rise to 29% by 2060, from just 19% today. 
  4. Job seekers between the ages of 29 and 31 receive 35% more callbacks than those aged 64 to 66. 
  5. Only 23% of businesses are actively seeking employees over the age of 50.
  6. Only 8% of CEOs report having age discrimination included in their diversity and inclusivity policies (even though 65% of those surveyed said they had such a policy). 
  7. Multigenerational workforces are more productive and have less turnover than those lacking in age diversity. 

These seven facts showcase four significant trends that all business owners and recruiters should be aware of heading into the future. 

  • People are working later in life than ever before.  
  • It can be very tough 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 about age discrimination in place. 
  • Age diversity is a leading contributor to more productive workplaces. 

This should be an eye-opening set of statistics for any company that is not currently accounting for age discrimination in their workplace. The reality is that companies who do not actively promote age diversity are missing out on a rapidly growing talent pool of highly experienced and qualified individuals and the benefits of multigenerational workforces. 

Those companies that do not have active age discrimination policies in place are also at heightened legal and ethical risk, leaving themselves open for potential complaints and lawsuits. 

Luckily, there are steps you can take to identify and avoid age discrimination in the workplace. The remainder of this article will focus on those steps. 

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 a number of 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 organization 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 organizations. 

Now that we’ve identified why age discrimination happens let’s look at some concrete examples.

Age discrimination examples

As mentioned, age discrimination can be overt or subtle. It can take many forms and may go unidentified by a company if it’s not top of mind. 

Here are some common examples of age discrimination that you should be aware of.

Word choice in recruitment ads

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 candidate

In addition to the above examples, it’s also common to see references to education requirements that indicate a specific timeframe or age group. Referring to SATs or GPAs, for example, indicates a time period that might not apply to older workers.

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, benefits, and perks that benefit a specific age group

The policies, benefits, and perks 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 in the workplace

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 impact 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. 

Word choice in rejection notices

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. 

Now that we’ve identified why age discrimination happens and how it manifests in an organization let’s explore some ways to prevent it.

How to prevent age discrimination in the workplace

Diversity 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 at your organization. The next step is to implement concrete actions that help to alleviate the problem.

Here are some of the most effective ways to prevent age discrimination at your company.

Educate about bias.

All recruiters and hiring managers at your organization 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 organization. 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 emphasized in this document. 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 organization. Provide specialist training to ensure that employees have the tools they need to identify and avoid age discrimination cases. 

Include age in your diverse hiring strategy.

Next, 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. 

Watch how you advertise.

As mentioned earlier, the words you use in your recruitment ads and job requirements can greatly impact the types of people who apply.

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.

Conclusion 

It’s been proven time, and again that diverse workforces are successful ones. Diversity comes in many different forms and does not just apply to race, sex, religion, or sexual orientation. Age discrimination is alive and well in many industries and organizations across the world. It’s your job as a recruiter, leader, or hiring manager to identify that reality and take the necessary steps to prevent it. 

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