How to Avoid Ageism in Hiring

How to Avoid Ageism in Hiring

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Betty, an HR Generalist, was on an interview committee for a Sunday school teacher’s position. They were in the back room discussing the next applicant, and one interviewer said, “She is an older woman, and I don’t think she would be good working with young children.”

Betty noticed the other interviewers’ heads start nodding up and down in agreement.

Betty spoke up and said that age should not be a factor in their decision to interview her. As she was speaking, she noticed the interviewers’ heads turn toward her and slowly start nodding up and down in agreement!

This type of example and others similar to this are discussed in a series of Books for Integrating Diversity, authored by Lila Kelly of Lila Kelly Associates, who since 1992 has been working with organizations to develop and implement comprehensive, integrated and strategic initiatives for diversity and inclusion.

“This is an example of an interview team member who recognized bias and spoke up,” says Kelly. “What would have happened if Betty’s voice had not been present in this situation?”

Human resource professionals need to work together with managers, department leaders and others responsible for recruiting, hiring, interviewing and training to avoid ageism in the workplace.

“Interviewers need to help each other be aware of their biases and cultural misunderstandings that they bring to interviews and interview team members need to speak up and hold each other accountable for eliminating bias on the interview team,” says Kelly.

When addressing the topic of ageism in her trainings on diversity in employment interviewing, the topic seems to become a bit ambiguous in some groups of people, says Kelly.

“Nowadays, with a strong focus on generational diversity in the workplace, I often see younger persons speak up about misconceptions that potential employers have about them,” says Kelly. “These misconceptions somewhat mirror the biases that older applicants experience.”

We are at a point in history that has been predicted for over 20 years. The baby boomer generation is beginning to leave the workforce in large numbers, Kelly points out.

“Perhaps employers, or certain interviewers or hiring managers, are thinking that they do not want to replace an older person with another older person,” says Kelly. “They might want to keep in mind the length of time younger employees actually remain in a job.”

Translation: A generation of baby boomers have proven to be loyal, dedicated and committed to the company for the long haul. The millennial? The jury is out, but all this generation appears ready to head for the next opportunity once they don’t get what they feel they deserve.

How can you avoid ageism and bias in your interviewing and hiring? Start by avoiding these types of questions, according to a 2013 Society of Human Resources article titled ‘Overqualified’: Is It Code for ‘Too Old’?:

  • Would it be hard working for a boss younger than you?
  • Do you think our technology demands might be too much?
  • Why would you want this job, given all your experience?
  • People here work long hours; that probably doesn’t interest you.

These remarks, the SHRM article points out, unwittingly or not convey the message that an over-55 applicant is “too old” for a job.

Although age discrimination in hiring is illegal, proving age discrimination is difficult, labor experts agree. Applicants typically can’t tell if they miss out on jobs because they lack qualifications or because interviewers assume they’ll not be able to adapt, be unproductive, slow to learn, technologically handicapped, overly opinionated or too advanced in years to fit in with younger workers.

Sometimes, being told you’re “overqualified” is another way of being told you’re too old for a job, said Laurie McCann, senior attorney at the AARP Foundation Litigation.

“If the interviewing employer has objective evidence that the person’s overqualification would be an issue, [the comment] is legitimate,” she said. “But if they’re just assuming the person wouldn’t be happy in the position because they perceive the person as being older, there have been some court cases that have said overqualified can be a code word for age discrimination and can be a reason for finding in the applicant’s favor.”

How can employers, recruiters and human resources professionals train for these types of scenarios?

Consider this advice from the Society of Human Resources, published in the article Five Tips for Avoiding Age Discrimination

“Most managers are not actively trying to weed older workers out of the workforce,” according to Dana Connell, an attorney with Littler in Chicago, stated in the article. “But they sometimes factor in age without really thinking about it, or make decisions in a way that makes it appear that age is a factor, even when it’s not.”

In an interview with SHRM Online, Connell recommended five steps to avoid age discrimination claims and liability.

  1. Offer severance packages with releases to employees who have been terminated in a reduction-in-force, and ensure the releases are valid under the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act. This step “has certainly—more than anything else—impacted the number of age discrimination claims you would otherwise see,” he remarked.
  2. Employ a disciplined approach to reductions-in-force that avoids a subconscious lower ranking of older employees. “Development of criteria and a consistent application of those criteria, to make those difficult decisions is a better approach,” Connell added.
  3. Send the right message from the top. Business leaders should not only avoid ageist comments, they should set the tone that the company needs to keep its best people, not that it needs to get rid of the “good old boys.”
  4. Performance reviews: Watch for, and eliminate, comments that might be viewed as age-related in all performance documentation.
  5. Train about age discrimination and stereotypes. “No manager should ever be in the position where he/she might testify that he/she was not aware that it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of age,” he said. “That is what happened in Mathis v. Chevrolet, 269 F.3d 771 (7th Cir. 2001), and the court there stated that leaving managers in ignorance of basic features of the ADEA [Age Discrimination in Employment Act] is an ‘extraordinary mistake’ for an employer to make.”

Age discrimination most frequently comes up in the context of terminations and failure-to-promote cases, remarked Terri Imbarlina Patak, an attorney with Dickie McCamey in Pittsburgh. Failure-to-hire cases are rare. To avoid age discrimination claims, she recommends employers train employees on diversity and discrimination—training that she says has “fallen by the wayside. Being serious about diversity goes a long way” to fend off claims. And don’t just train on age discrimination, but train about all forms of discrimination, she advised.

“It all goes hand in hand,” she said, adding that, “You don’t just see one basis when a claim is filed, but instead see age, race, gender, disability claims at the initial administrative stage.”

The danger zones for employers have to do with age stereotypes: any belief or assumption that age has a negative correlation with energy, initiative, commitment, imagination, flexibility or—perhaps the biggest stereotype of all—the ability to learn new technology,” Connell added. Do the smart thing, he recommended, and “continue to give older workers tech-oriented opportunities, as well as necessary training to keep up-to-date with the latest technologies.” Any decision that is made on the basis of such opportunities is then “based on real-life experience rather than stereotypes.”

Training must address stereotypes and hidden blind spots in a manager’s or supervisor’s decision-making process, Connell added. “Simply lecturing people on do’s and don’ts will not be sufficient. Case studies that are interactive, challenging and have lots of grey areas work best.”

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