Combating Ageism in the Workplace

Combating Ageism in the Workplace

Guest Post By Kim Henderson

Old and young employees working together



Since Diversity and Inclusion took center stage in corporate America, you might think the modern era work environment is becoming an equal place for all to excel and build lifelong careers. However, have we forgotten about the workers over 50? In the US about 35 percent of the population is now age 50 or older. Unfortunately, ageism in the workplace occurs every day across America, and it is often not recognized and sometimes even accepted as harmless. You have probably overheard the comments and quiet jokes about older workers being sluggish, mentally dull, or technologically illiterate.  


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The Great Disconnect

The Bureau of Labor statistics reports that workers age 55+ comprise a commanding 40.2% of the workforce, and individuals age 65-74 make up 27.8% of the labor force. Yet even with strong representation in corporate America, surveys still show that 3 in 5 older workers have experienced age bias in the workplace.  When the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) was passed in 1967, it protected individuals over 40 against discrimination based on age. So, if people are working beyond traditional retirement timelines and are protected by law, how did this bias become so pervasive? Age discrimination has many different faces in the workplace, and the first step to eradicating it, is to identify it.  It manifests in these categories:

  • Recruitment and hiring lean toward the younger candidate for no other reason than age or perceived cultural fit.
  • Learning, development, and training are offered to younger workers while overlooking senior workers. These missed opportunities could be in the form of classroom training, online course work, advanced degrees, or attending seminars and conferences.
  • Older employees are not asked to participate in challenging new projects, key initiatives, and interesting assignments in the workplace.
  • Raises and promotions go to younger workers even if the individual performance of an older worker is exemplary. 
  • Terminations are often aimed at senior employees as an organization restructures or downsizes.
  • Negative comments about age, mental ability, or physical stamina are targeted at the over 50 crowd either in a subtle or an overt way.


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How Can Companies Combat Ageism?

  • Examine your mindset.  We shouldn’t assume our work place is free of age discrimination.  We all have developed stereotypes over our lifetime. Learn to recognize your own thought patterns, and challenge yourself to modify them. Work with your team and leadership to mold the culture of the organization to be free from age bias.  Hold each other accountable and strive for change.
  • Invest in senior workers continued growth and development.  Whether it be formal classroom leadership training, conferences and seminars, or online technology courses, help them enhance their skill set. They already have a wealth of experience and business acumen, so modernizing their impressive tool kit not only benefits the worker, but also improves results for the organization. Create a culture of learning and design training programs that address the needs of early, middle, and senior career professionals.


See this related post from Kim Henderson: How to Attract Talents and Make Them Stay?
Companies should be more involved in society to express the message they want to send by being active and visible in the local community through charitable organizations, professional groups, and sponsoring networking events. Apart from being visible to the community, promoting the company's excellent, innovative, and unique features on the internet can greatly help in attracting talents as they are becoming more tech-savvy.
  • Invite older employees to be a part of or lead new company projects and initiatives. They likely have a distinguished track record of tackling new assignments over their tenure, so keep them energized with new leadership duties and responsibilities. Further, include them in company activities and client/organizational meetings – they add value and experience!
  • Evaluate your practices for raises and promotions. Are they fair, equitable, and based on performance data?  Also, you may believe that older workers don’t want a promotion because they plan on retiring soon.  Employees of all ages want meaningful and valuable work, so don’t make assumptions and risk short changing the company and the individual. Engage in dialogue and determine what is important to them. 
  • Assess your hiring and recruiting practices.  Sometimes we hire people similar to ourselves instead of objectively hiring based on skills and qualifications. Put checks and balances in place for your hiring process to ensure candidates aren’t eliminated due to bias.  Utilize standardized, objective questions in the evaluation process and have multiple people on different teams involved in interviews to avoid preconceived opinions from dominating.  Also, don’t think all senior candidates command a high salary.  People are driven by different motivators -- ask the questions.


So how do we retain talent in this type of climate? Companies need to realize that what they were doing in the past doesn't necessarily apply today. They need to revisit all their assumptions and test each one of them one by one. Employers sometimes have this misguided sense that if someone leaves they can just easily replace them and that's a really expensive mentality to have.



Shape the Future Workforce

Today’s older workforce is an irreplaceable asset of industry knowledge, skills, and expertise.  They have a command of workplace mechanics and have achieved massive accomplishments through decades of shaping American organizations.  If they leave a company due to bias and a stagnant future, their intellectual capital goes with them. With a little education, teamwork, and determination we can hire and cultivate a range of qualified employees regardless of their age. 

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Kim is the Managing Director of Cobalt Compass Solutions. Cobalt Compass provides consulting and training services for the Staffing and Professional Services Industry. Training programs encompass the full life cycle of sales in staffing and teach the skills and strategies to create lasting customer relationships. Our consulting services give leaders the methodology to create and operate effective business units while managing teams for performance and revenue.


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