Age discrimination in the workplace has been illegal in the U.S. for more more than 50 years. But that hasn’t stopped an epidemic of ageism in many aspects of work, from hiring to firing. While many workplace cultures would frown on stereotyping based on race or gender, negative perceptions about older workers persist, and many companies blatantly express a preference for young people. This ageism acts to the detriment of older workers — and to the companies who could use their experience.
For women, who may already be subject to gender discrimination, ageism can be particularly insidious. Research has shown that women are the target of more age discrimination than men, starting in their 40s.
Unfortunately, it can be difficult for victims of workplace ageism to get legal relief. But CEOs and other company leaders can fight age discrimination by developing polices that promote age diversity within their workforces.
A pervasive problem
Age discrimination is not limited to entertainment industries such as acting or modeling, but affects workers across myriad fields. More than 61% of workers over age 45 have witnessed or experienced age discrimination at work, according to a 2017 AARP survey of 3,900 people. Of those surveyed, 38% believe age discrimination is “very common.”
The number of age-related discrimination charges filed with employers and government agencies by workers age 65 and older doubled from 1990 to 2017, when there were 18,376 age discrimination charges tracked by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Those are only the cases that have been reported. One survey showed that only 40% of respondents who experienced age discrimination have filed a complaint with their employees or government agencies.
This type of discrimination is often based on false assumptions about older workers, including that they are harder to train, lack technological skills, or are too expensive to hire. These stereotypes are outdated and harmful, and research actually shows that older workers perform better than younger workers in almost every aspect of work, and that the addition of experienced workers improves team performance.
What is the law?
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) “forbids age discrimination against people who are age 40 or older,” both employees and applicants, in all areas of work, including hiring, firing, layoffs, pay, promotions, job assignments, training, benefits and any other term or condition of employment, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The law was passed in 1967 to protect older generations from the wave of Baby Boomers who were poised to dominate the workforce with sheer numbers. The aim was to prevent discrimination based on age in the same way that other legislation of the time was designed to fight discrimination based on race or gender.
However, a 2009 Supreme Court decision, Gross v. FBL Financial Services, made it much harder to prove age discrimination. In that case, the court ruled that an employee must show that age was the main factor, rather than one motivating factor, in an employer’s decision to hire or fire. It’s a much higher burden of proof than for other types of discrimination cases.
However, a new federal bill, the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act (POWADA), has been approved by the House Education and Labor Committee. If it becomes law, it would change the burden of proof back to the standard that existed before the Gross ruling, recognizing the legitimacy of “mixed-motive” age discrimination complaints.
Even with the higher standard of proof intact, high-profile age discrimination lawsuits have made headlines lately.
Last year, for example, the Seasons 52 restaurant chain settled an age discrimination lawsuit by agreeing to pay $2.85 million and hire a monitor to prevent discrimination against applicants over 40.
More recently, Google settled a similar suit, agreeing to pay $11 million to 200 job applicants and offer company training on age bias.
PricewaterhouseCoopers also faces an age discrimination suit that could involve several thousand plaintiffs. At one point, PwC communicated on its website that 80% of its workforce were millennials and that the average age of its employees was 27.
How CEOs can promote age diversity
CEOs can lead on age inclusion by driving changes in company policies and culture. Here are some steps you can take.
Take a hard look at your
Developing age diversity at your company requires a frank assessment
- Is your workforce already age-diverse?
- Does your company culture include unspoken standards about the “right” age for employees?
- Do older/more experienced/better paid employees tend to be first on the list when there are layoffs?
- Does your company focus recruitment efforts specifically on hiring younger workers?
- Are candidates required to submit age-related information such as date of birth or graduation date in order to apply for a job?
The Center on Aging & Work at Boston College and AARP has developed an age diversity benchmarking tool that can help you see how your company compares to other organizations and formulate next steps.
Add age inclusion to your diversity goals
Companies are becoming much more aware of diversity issues when it comes to gender and race, but age diversity is often left out. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers’ 2015 Annual Global CEO Survey, only 8% of the global CEOs surveyed included age inclusiveness in their company’s diversity strategy.
However, workforce diversity has been proven to improve innovation and financial performance — and a truly diverse workforce also includes people of different generations. Making age diversity a formal company goal encourages effective action and introduces accountability.
Your company should develop clear policies on age discrimination, with a defined process for dealing with violations, and all employees should be aware of the policy and penalties for misbehavior.
Implement inclusive recruiting and hiring
Age discrimination often starts with recruitment and hiring practices, but simple changes can make a big difference in age inclusivity efforts. Here are some steps to take:
Watch your language in job descriptions
Job ads commonly describe ideal candidates using such language as “recent college graduates,” which may discourage older candidates from applying. The EEOC specifically calls this out as a “prohibited practice.” They explain: “It is illegal for an employer to publish a job advertisement that shows a preference for or discourages someone from applying for a job because of his or her race, color, religion, sex (including gender identity, sexual orientation and pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.” Ads targeting “new grads” fall directly under the umbrella of age discrimination.
Avoid capping the number of years of experience desired
Specifying that candidates should have no more than 10 years of experience, for example, discourages applicants who may be older with more experience from applying.
Target people of all ages
The choice of where companies advertise job listings can also lead to exclusion of older candidates. Earlier this year, Facebook eliminated the option for job advertisers to specify ad targets based on age, race, or gender, an important step to age inclusion. Companies should also beware of other practices, such as advertising solely on college campuses, that can contribute to age discrimination.
Make your application process inclusive
Job applications commonly ask for candidates’ date of birth and graduation dates, but the federal Employment Equal Opportunity Commission recommends eliminating these kinds of age-related questions.
When using application tracking systems, avoid configuring them to automatically downgrade applicants with “too much” experience. Alternative systems such as Career Place are specifically designed to reduce bias in the application and hiring process.
Career Place uses tools such as assessments, quizzes and work scenarios to qualify applicants anonymously before hiring managers
Another factor to consider is your interviewing panel. Having age-diverse interviewers can help prevent ageism in hiring. All recruiters and interviewers should be trained to avoid age discrimination.
Ensure that layoffs don’t discriminate against older workers
From 2013 to 2018, IBM let go more than 20,000 American employees ages 40 and over, adding up to about 60 percent of its estimated total U.S. job cuts over that time, according to a report from ProPublica and Mother Jones. The goal, according to IBM planning documents, was to “correct seniority mix.” Now a number of age-discrimination lawsuits are pending against the company.
IBM isn’t alone in targeting older workers in the last years of their working lives. More than 50% of older U.S. workers lose longtime jobs before they choose to retire, according to an analysis by ProPublica and The Urban Institute. Often, these workers stay unemployed for a long period of time, and most are unable to ever make up for the financial damage these losses cause.
This is a common problem, but organizations can fight this trend with the right policies. Companies can avoid age discrimination when they let workers go by:
- Documenting the company’s goals for work reductions.
- Using objective criteria to make decisions.
- Making sure that layoffs don’t disproportionately affect older workers. This may take a statistical analysis, which is what courts use to assess cases of race- and gender-based discrimination.
Foster a multigenerational culture
Age inclusivity should be an ongoing effort that is supported by the culture of the company. This culture should:
- Appreciate ability and talent regardless of age.
- Treat employees equally when it comes to responsibilities, promotions, compensation, etc.
- Reject negative stereotypes about older workers, such as that they lack energy or tech savviness.
- Offer learning and development, including reverse-age mentoring and career counseling.
- Include age diversity in depictions of the company, such as workforce photos.
A level playing field for all ages
Creating a work atmosphere of equality and inclusion for people of all ages is not only a legal requirement. It’s also good for business and simply the right thing to do. CEOs and other company leaders can make a big difference by spearheading age inclusivity efforts that can help companies build truly diverse and effective workforces.
Jennifer Sokolowsky writes about technology and workplace equity. She has an extensive international background in journalism and marketing, including work with The Seattle Times, The Prague Post, Microsoft