Workplace culture has become more inclusive in recent years and that’s something employers everywhere should be celebrating. But even as we’re doing our best to diversify our teams and create positive, accommodating places to work, there’s one issue that tends to fall by the wayside: ageism.
“Ageism,” or prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of a person’s age, is a form of stereotyping wherein individuals look negatively upon those who are older than themselves. A study conducted by AARP and The Economist revealed that ageism costs employers significantly – in fact, according to the study, “discriminating against older workers could cost the U.S. economy $850 billion.”
Fortunately, combating ageism at work is completely doable; it starts with awareness and actionable changes. Here's where to start.
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (the “ADEA”) is a set of federal regulations put in place by the United States government to protect workers from ageism at the hands of their employers and coworkers. It forbids discrimination against current employees, as well as new applicants for positions within a company.
The ADEA protects workers aged 40 and above. Although the ADEA does not protect workers under 40, some states have separate laws in place that do protect younger workers from age discrimination based on their age. In terms of ADEA enforcement, it doesn’t matter if the employer (or manager) accused of discrimination is at or over the age of 40 as well. Any discrimination that is based on age and directed at an employee at or over the age of 40 is illegal.
Acts that are prohibited under the ADEA include hiring, firing and promoting based on a person’s age. Less obvious actions, but also forbidden, include choosing which employees to give special job assignments, promotions, training or benefits to because of the employee’s age.
Pay special attention to your policies when evaluating them for any kind of discrimination, including ageism. Even if a policy applies to employees of all ages, the policy can still be considered discriminatory, and therefore illegal under the ADEA if it has a negative impact on your older employees or applicants.
The Cost of Age Discrimination to Employers
Learning how to prevent age discrimination in the workplace takes work, but it pays dividends. That’s because implementing age discrimination solutions benefits both your business and employees. The Economist and AARP’s joint study found that we missed out on an additional $850 billion to U.S. GDP in 2018—a figure the size of Pennsylvania’s economy— because of age discrimination.
What’s more, “this gap could rise to $3.9 trillion in 2050.” More and more adults over the age of fifty are staying in the workforce past the age of 65, which is considered a minimum standard “retirement age.” With the 50-plus labor force growing by 80% since 1998, the upward trend is set to continue.
Employees in the U.S. are living longer, healthier lives, which is great news; it also means that now is the time to examine our practices and culture for patterns of ageism and stamp out any discrimination that is left.
How to Avoid Age Discrimination in Hiring
Great employers are always examining their HR operations and implementing new standards for preventing discrimination. Consider the following tips as you’re learning best practices for how to avoid age bias in your workplace:
Take a Careful Look at Your Job Descriptions
Job descriptions are a key way in which employers may unknowingly dissuade workers over the age of 40 from applying at their companies. There are several phrases you should consciously avoid in order to make your job descriptions more inclusive to experienced workers:
Words and phrases about the employee: “energetic,” “fresh,” “recent college graduate,” “digital native,” “tech-savvy,” etc.
Words and phrases about the employer: “young company,” “young team,” “fast-paced,” “startup atmosphere,” etc.
Limits on an employee’s years of experience: for example, “three to five years of experience.”
Let’s examine the suggestions above, starting with words and phrases about the employee. While you might really need an applicant who is great with computers, unless the employee is actually going to be working in information technology, leave out the term “tech savvy.”
Even though an employee over the age of 40 might be perfectly capable of using computers and even helping coworkers do the same, your job description could give off the impression that you’re looking for a young wunderkind who can build their own PC. If a potential employee has internalized ageist stereotypes, they may believe they don’t know enough about technology to apply – even if they do.
Never use the term “digital native” in a job description. This phrase tangibly places a specific age cap on the type of applicant you’re stating that you’re looking for, blocking out all applicants who weren’t born in the age of the internet.
Similarly, while setting a requirement for a minimum (i.e., “three,” in our example) number of years of experience is perfectly acceptable and legal, there is no reason to set an experience maximum (i.e., “five”). Unless someone has recently switched industries, most employees with, for example, “three to five” years of experience will be very young.
Setting a maximum on the years of experience you’re looking for sends a message to older employees: if you’ve been at this for a while, you’re not who we’re looking for. Not only is this a hurtful message to send, but your descriptions could be blocking out the very best candidates from inquiring.
Forced retirement is generally illegal, except in certain specifically allowed instances. But there are nuanced ways that employers could be implying to their more experienced workers that they should be retiring soon. To rid your workplace of this, be careful to avoid the following practices:
Assigning long-term projects only to younger employees
Giving easier, day-to-day assignments to older employees and leaving projects that require making connections with clients and vendors or creating corporate strategies for younger employees
Only offering continuing education or training to younger employees
Providing younger employees with more generous raises or steeper salary growth
Be Careful What You Ask For
The job application process is a great place to start in examining your HR processes for signs of ageism. The less age-related information you ask for, the better. While it’s not illegal to require an employee to disclose their full work history, you can always even the playing field by only asking for information on the last 10 years an employee has worked or the last two experiences they have had. If you need to know this information for security screening processes, it can be gathered after the applicant has been hired, not during the interview process.
In the same vein, there is never a reason to ask for the year a potential applicant graduated from high school or college. And in an interview, be careful to avoid age-related questions that could seem like innocent conversation starters. Unless the applicant brings up their own children or grandchildren, there is no need to inquire about them.
Partner with the HR Compliance Experts
Even the most well-meaning businesses could be unknowingly out of compliance with key federal discrimination laws and miss out on the best talent because of it. Want to be sure that you’re on the right track? Meet Axcet HR Solutions. We’re your compliance specialists – guiding your business to mitigate risk. Learn more about what you can do to prevent discrimination in your workplace, and how Axcet can help. Schedule a conversation with us today.