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Damaging stereotypes and age discrimination in the workplace

by Jen Wason

Cultural messaging is pretty clear: mainstream society (at least according to advertisers) expects you to take pains to appear younger than your age.

If you’re looking for work as an older adult, the stakes are even higher. You’re urged to appear younger in your job search—don’t look too old on your resume and especially not in person. Appearing too old aligns you with assumptions about older workers being less competent, adaptable, and a whole lot of other damaging stereotypes.

But, Shaker associate Mike Reeves, who has researched workplace age discrimination, explains that “so much literature says older adults are actually better at their jobs, highly adaptable, and stick around longer.”

Stereotypes about older workers

A 2012 meta-analysis evaluated six common stereotypes about older workers being:

  • Less motivated
  • Less willing to engage in training or career development
  • More resistant to change
  • Less trusting
  • Not as healthy
  • More vulnerable to family demands

This analysis of four decades of data found that nearly all negative generalizations about older workers are unfounded. Another major international study found that older workers were more reliable, consistent, and motivated performers than younger ones.

Still, employers often favor the potential of youth over the experience and stability of older workers.

“Companies are missing out on some of the best employees out there because they’re using biased hiring processes,” Reeves laments, and many of them don’t even realize it.

Jobs where discrimination is more common

Older workers are much more likely to experience age discrimination in particular jobs, such as in hourly retail, food service, and other positions where they are far outnumbered by younger colleagues.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 identifies adults 40 years of age and older as a protected age class, though older workers are often conventionally considered 50 years and older.

“When older workers come into these jobs, they experience a lot of discrimination—especially when it comes to rewards and promotions,” Reeves says.

Discrimination against older workers on the job can range from being as overt as verbal—or even physical—attack to less obvious microaggressions like managers and coworkers avoiding or otherwise interacting with them differently than with other employees. Other forms of discrimination include pushing them out or pressuring them to retire from their positions.

And while it’s against the law to discriminate against someone for their age, unlike the sensitivity with which most other protected groups generally are treated, teasing someone with a stereotype about their age “is totally acceptable in our culture,” Reeves points out.

“It’s often met with a good laugh,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean it isn’t harmful.”

Being conscious of bias

The first line of defense against age discrimination in hiring and other employment decisions—and even ensuring how employees are treated on the job day to day—is being aware of how commonly it occurs.

A concrete solution is to eliminate bias in your hiring process through objective evaluation.

Relying on reviewing resumes as your main evaluation strategy makes you vulnerable to bias, no matter how open to all applicant age groups you may think you are. Reeves explains that several studies have shown that indicators of age in resumes can eliminate people from even being considered for a job.

“Take the bias out of it,” Reeves says, by employing an objective evaluation method, like the Virtual Job Tryout, that makes sure you don’t systematically discriminate against older workers. Using evidence-based hiring also sends a valuable message to candidates about your organization, he adds, that “we don’t care about your age—we care if you can do the job."

Clients sometimes worry that gamified assessments will have an adverse impact on older applicants who may not be as accustomed to using digital devices or have the same dexterity or visual acuity as younger applicants, Reeves says, explaining that validating whatever hiring practices you implement through predictive modeling is essential to making certain your methods are fair to all applicants and not eliminating certain age groups from your candidate pool.

Shaker is guided by universal design principles whenever possible to ensure each Virtual Job Tryout accommodates as many people as possible, Reeves says, which reduces the risk of marginalizing particular groups of individuals taking the assessment. “We pay attention to and account for these things,” he says of Shaker’s approach to creating assessments.

Need help ensuring you aren’t missing out on great candidates?

Are you measuring the fairness of your selection process? Want to know more about capturing the right data to ensure you aren’t employing biased practices?

Since our inception, Shaker has been a leader in partnering with companies to use selection science technology intelligently, empowering them to make fair, unbiased decisions about their candidates to create high-performing workforces. Ask us how we can help.