“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” “60 is the new 30!” “It’s so easy, even a grandma could do it!” How many times have you heard comments like these? How many times have you paused to think about the ageist assumptions behind them? Even if you’re actively trying to prevent ageism in your company, it’s easy to overlook the ways it infiltrates our culture and our workplaces.
In 1967, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) was passed to prevent ageism from taking hold in companies. This federal law protects individuals who are 40 years and older from age-based discrimination at work. The ADEA specifically prohibits age-based discrimination with respect to hiring or any term of employment, including promotions, pay, benefits, work assignments, demotions or termination.
Despite this law and the fact that almost a quarter of the U.S. workforce is comprised of workers 55 years of age and older, workplaces are not known for being welcoming of older employees. A 2018 report from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission indicated that 6 out of 10 older workers have witnessed or personally experienced ageism in the workplace. Of those workers, 90 percent confirmed that age-based discrimination is common.
It’s clear companies have a problem. Confirmed cases of ageism can result in employment law violations and fines. Even unconfirmed allegations of ageism can lead to time and money spent fighting lawsuits and negative PR. Issues with ageism also make it harder for companies to recruit and retain top talent. Less quantifiable, ageist companies miss out on the experience and diverse perspectives older workers bring.
Read on for steps you can take today to get serious about preventing ageism in your company.
Assess your current environment
In order to solve a problem, you have to understand it. The first step in preventing ageism in your company is to assess the current workplace environment. There are online tools that will help you evaluate your company’s policies and culture as they relate to employee age. This one, from The Center on Aging and Work at Boston College, takes less than 15 minutes to complete. After completing the assessment, you’ll receive tailored insight on where your organization could use improvement. You’ll also receive actionable strategies to help you make the improvements.
Alternately, you can conduct a workplace assessment yourself. If you take this route, be sure to evaluate every step of the employee experience. Look at everything from job descriptions through the promotion and termination process. As you go through this assessment, be honest about any areas where older employees might be disadvantaged. Once you’ve determined the areas that need improvement, you’re ready to make effective changes.
Evaluate the language in your job postings
Job postings are often the first place potential new hires discover your company. Beyond telling candidates what your company is looking for, job postings can also tell candidates what your company is. For example, it’s fairly routine for job postings to have ranges on the ideal candidate’s years of experience. While a lower limit to years of experience makes sense, an upper limit can lead to accusations of age discrimination.
It happened at CareFusion. Several years ago, the company posted a job description specifying “no more than 7 years” of relevant experience. Consciously or not, this limit was probably based on assumptions around salary expectations or management of older workers. A candidate with 25 years of experience applied for the job, was rejected, and sued the company under the ADEA. Despite CareFusion ultimately winning on appeal, placing an upper limit on experience cost the company money, time and bad press. To avoid a similar fate, remove upper limits on years of experience in your job postings. Beyond minimizing legal risks, removing upper limits also broadens your candidate pool.
The language job postings use to describe an ideal candidate is another area where companies can alienate older workers. With a lot of jobs requiring technical skills, companies have started including statements in job postings like “we’re looking for a digital native.” While terms like “digital native” aren’t as obviously problematic as “young” or even “energetic,” they suggest you are only looking for candidates who were born after 1980 and grew up in the Internet age. Instead of using these exclusive terms, get clear on what you’re really looking for and spell out those skills.
Craft an age-inclusive employer brand
Your employer brand is your reputation as a place to work. A strong employer brand makes it easier to fill open roles. A weak employer brand means you’ll have to spend more time and money on recruiting. One of the key places a company shapes its employer brand is through its online presence. One filled with images of young people could signify that older employees are not welcome at your company.
To avoid the appearance of ageism, review the images and language used on your company website and social media accounts. Make sure to highlight employees of all ages in your posts and website imagery. Similar to job postings, make sure the wording used to describe your company culture won’t alienate older candidates or employees. Ideally, you’ll also include messaging that conveys your commitment to being an employer of choice for all candidates, regardless of age.
Have honest conversations about ageism with recruiters and interviewers
Other than job postings and online presence, recruiters and interviewers can be the first line of defense in preventing ageism in your company. Because of this, company leaders should have honest conversations with them about the biases they might have against older candidates.
While it is hard to escape the biases we’ve grown up with, recognizing they exist is often enough to overcome them. Counsel recruiters and interviewers against common age-based stereotypes. Remind them that you are actively seeking to prevent ageism in the company. Additionally, train recruiters to ignore milestone dates that might indicate age, such as college graduation year.
Use structured interviews
Have you ever been in an interview that veered off topic? Maybe you bonded over a shared love of a certain TV show or hometown. While it’s nice to know you can get along with the candidate you’re interviewing, unstructured interviews don’t help predict future job performance. Moreover, they can bias you against other candidates who might be more qualified but have less in common with you personally.
Structured interviews are interviews that present all candidates with exactly the same questions in the same order. While they take more time to create, structured interviews are twice as effective as unstructured interviews in predicting future job performance. Additionally, by preparing relevant questions and asking all candidates the same questions, you gain actionable, less-biased insight into their qualifications for the role and can compare candidates with more confidence.
Offer a broader array of benefits
The benefits your company offers are an important part of recruiting candidates and retaining employees. Moreover, the benefits you offer can speak volumes on what your company values. It also sends a message about the types of people your company seeks to attract. Are you all about kombucha on tap and company-sponsored happy hours? Or do you invest in 401k matching and strong health insurance plans? Older employees are more likely to have families and to be planning for retirement. Offering benefits like full dependent care coverage and financial planning assistance shows older employees you recognize and support their needs.
Support employee resource groups for older employees
Employee resource groups have become popular tools for supporting diverse employees. They create a safe space for employees with a particular underrepresented commonality to connect and support one another. Unfortunately, most employee resource groups focus solely on gender or race and ignore other aspects of diversity, like age. In order to promote an age-inclusive culture, you should consider creating an employee resource group specifically dedicated to older employees.
One group to model is Google’s Greyglers employee resource group for employees over 50. Beyond being a safe space for older employees to connect, Greyglers also advocate for the needs of older employees. This advocacy helps prevent ageism from taking hold of the company. Moreover, Greyglers highlight the needs of older users, which can help improve the company’s product and profits. Finally, Greyglers reduce cost and time to hire metrics by helping the company recruit other older employees.
Ensure your office workspaces are inclusive
While people over 50 are more active than previous generations, they may have different physical needs than younger employees. It’s important to be mindful of these potential differences when designing your company’s workspaces. Everyone will benefit from ergonomically supportive chairs and adjustable standing desks. Older employees might also appreciate, or need, other tools that make the job less physically demanding. Affordable software exists that helps make working easier for people with vision or hearing impairments. By offering these assistive technologies to all employees, you’ll demonstrate your commitment to being an age-inclusive workplace.
Interior design is another aspect of your workplace you should approach with intention. Your office’s design sends a message, whether you intend it to or not. An entirely open office without private space communicates an intent toward collaboration and lack of hierarchy. Rows of cubicles communicate that the company supports more independent working styles. In designing or redesigning your workplace, keep in mind the age-inclusive message you are hoping to communicate.
Plan employee events that cater to all ages
Hosting events can be a great way for companies to foster a friendly, inclusive culture. These events can cause problems, however, if they end up inadvertently excluding certain groups. For example, if all employee events take place at night, employees with family obligations might miss out. If employee events require vigorous activity, older employees with physical limitations might be hesitant to participate. To prevent ageism from taking hold in your company, be sure to plan events that are inclusive of all ages.
Have an honest conversation about ageism with managers
Certainly coworker jokes can create a hostile workplace for older employees. But only managers can violate the ADEA by making discriminatory employment decisions. Because of this, managers have a significant responsibility to avoid practices that could lead to liability for a company. Indeed, in the 2001 case Mathis v. Phillips Chevrolet, the court found “[leaving] managers in ignorance of basic features of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act is an ‘extraordinary mistake’ for an employer to make.”
As a best practice, all managers should go through unconscious bias training. This training should focus on all forms of discrimination, not just gender and ethnicity. During the training, ask managers to honestly think back on the role age might have played in their employment decisions. Did they tend to only give younger employees training opportunities? Did they tend to target older workers for layoffs? Remind managers of the adverse impact discrimination can have on a company’s culture, productivity and business outcomes. Additionally, remind managers that their actions could lead to a lawsuit and fines against the company.
Tell the world
Preventing ageism in your company isn’t easy, but it’s important. A high-functioning multigenerational workforce contributes a diversity of thought that builds stronger cultures and more-responsive products. By evaluating your company’s culture, removing bias from your hiring processes, offering mindful benefits and support, and having honest conversations, you’ll create an age-inclusive workplace and let the world know your company opposes ageism.
Kelli Newman Mason is VP of People Operations at New Knowledge. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and two sons.