Age discrimination affects both old and young employees. Many employers may not even realize how age-related biases are affecting their hiring decisions.
"Age discrimination almost always affects older workers in a legal sense, but can affect younger workers in an informal way by creating arbitrary… floors needed for jobs," said Jeff Zinser, founder of Right Recruiting.
In his time as a recruitment and hiring expert, Zinser has seen first-hand how age discrimination plays out in the workplace, as well as the negative impact it can have on a company's culture and productivity. He shared his best tips for avoiding age discrimination in the workplace.
What is age discrimination?
Like race, gender and disability, age is a protected category in hiring under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It is illegal to discriminate against employees because of their age, no matter what that age is.
"A common-sense definition of age discrimination is a decision not to hire someone based on their age and not their skills," said Zinser. "Skills can be both subjective and objective. An example of a subjective skill may be communications skills or… cultural fit."
Age may be a factor in some of these subjective skills. For example, an older employee may end up not being a good fit for a company's culture because of their negative attitude toward a younger supervisor or aversion to technology. But that lack of cultural fit has to be demonstrated.
If you decide not to hire an older applicant because you assume that they dislike working with younger employees or using technology, but never find out whether that assumption is true, that is age discrimination.
The benefits of hiring employees with diverse ages
Some employers may unconsciously engage in age discrimination during the hiring process because they believe that employees in a specific age bracket are inherently better for the company. But limiting your candidate pipeline based on age could deprive your business of a critical variety of perspectives.
"A diverse workforce gives more points of view and insight into both your customers, vendors and regular workforce," Zinser said. "The perspective of a 60-year-old with grown children can provide insight… the perspective of an ambitious 30-year-old can remind a more senior team of things that they forgot over the decades. Both are to be cherished."
In addition to providing multiple viewpoints and ways of approaching challenges, hiring employees of a variety of ages can lead to more long-term stability for your business. By creating a workforce that spans decades, you create a pipeline for training and promotion that carries workers through their careers while preventing too much turnover at once.
"A department of eight 30-year-olds reporting to a 35-year-old will provide no career ladder. Even worse, it will create a terribly competitive and political environment as all the 30-year-olds jockey for a limited promotional opportunity," said Zinser. The opposite is no better: "A department of eight 60-year-olds provides no pipeline to plan for upcoming retirements and can be just as bad when everyone retires at once."
"The wider the age demographics of your business, the better your pipeline of promotable people," Zinser advised. "This will allow you to do succession planning better and will improve retention."
In both the short and long-term, a wide variety of ages among your employees will increase the stability, creativity and growth opportunity for your business.
Signs of age discrimination
How can you tell if your hiring practices are discriminatory? Zinser suggests that employers take a critical look at their current employees.
"The results of discrimination are obvious but the process can be invisible," said Zinser. "It is very difficult to see in any one single hiring scenario but over time patterns emerge … If over the span of a few years, a department staff starts to look the same, there is a problem."
This is true for any discriminatory hiring practice, not just age. If all your employees share the same demographic characteristics, you may need to rethink the criteria you or your hiring managers use to select new employees.
How to avoid age discrimination
When you are hiring, there are certain discriminatory questions you cannot ask, such as:
- How old are you?
- When do you plan to marry?
- When do you expect to retire?
- When will you start a family?
However, said Zinser, avoiding these questions doesn't get to the heart of the matter because they are so easy to work around. "As an employer, I can't ask someone their age but can ask their birthdate," he pointed out, adding that "eliminating discrimination by eliminating questions is a fool's errand."
Instead, encourage your staff to consciously work toward having a balance of ages among employees. That includes employees at all levels, not just the human resources department. "Attention needs to be paid at the VP level and above," Zinser said. "The scrutiny and concern cannot just come from the HR department. A department, just like any person, may exhibit discriminatory tendencies … The total executive team needs to be vigilant."
How employers can eliminate age discrimination
Avoiding discriminatory questions and actions is important, but to ensure that your company thrives, you need to work toward eliminating the biases that cause age discrimination in the first place.
"You can't just focus on having the right numbers of each subset, like a quota," said Zinser. "You need to understand the why behind the fact that a competent, balanced group is preferable."
Educating your workforce about the benefits that different age groups bring to the company is key to eliminating discrimination. However, using traditional forms of corporate education may backfire.
"Studies have shown that business generated fixes like seminars actually do more harm than good," Zinser warned. "People by nature are stubborn and will fight third party enforced dogma."
Rather than relying on training modules and seminars, you can reduce age discrimination in your company by encouraging employees and hiring managers to widen their own social circles.
Volunteering or working on the board of a local non-profit organization can help you appreciate the value of different perspectives and experiences. If you, as a business owner, visibly prioritize these things in your own life, you create a culture that encourages your employees to do the same.
Zinser also recommends taking classes at a local community college. This allows you to interact with people of many ages in a setting where everyone starts out equal while also learning new skills.
If your schedule or community doesn't give you opportunities for either volunteering or learning, Zinser recommends a simple solution: read widely.
"Good literature can put a 30-year-old female reader into the mind of a 65-year-old French aristocrat and vice versa," he said. "The more things you experience in the world, the less bias you have."