Age Discrimination More Prevalent Than Racial or Gender Bias? Reply

Despite the various bursting bubbles, financial flame-outs and blood-curdling recessions, the challenges for employers seem to have stayed the same.   They want a flexible job force that needs little training, adjusts well and requires moderate monitoring or mentoring.   These same employers bemoan the availability of quality candidates for their job openings.  Yet there is a wellspring of overlooked talent that does exist and can quickly and easily fill this void.  It is often segregated and overlooked because of marketplace misconceptions and myths.  It is the mid-career or older worker.

Although age discrimination is illegal it most certainly exists and appears more prevalent than gender or race discrimination.  In many markets it is overwhelmingly apparent, such as the film and television industries.  In others it can be more covert but it is still just as real.

Ask anybody on the job hunt age fifty or over and they can attest to the challenges of even getting a phone interview when just a few short years before the problem was deciding which call to take.   Those fortunate enough to be screened cite the same feedback when turned down for a role:

  • Another candidate whose “skills more closely matched” the needs of the company was identified
  • Or, the candidate themselves was “too qualified”

While the first is open to interpretation and might indeed reflect a core competency reality, the second is almost without question derived from an observation of the applicant’s age and the underlying preconceived notions related to workforce longevity stereotypes.

What are these myths that are so prevalent with recruiters and hiring authorities?  The stereotype breaks down into four areas.  Those fifty years of age and older are:

  • Inflexible
  • Too expensive
  • Lower energy employees
  • Not as technically savvy

Reality is much different.   Studies have shown that those over fifty:

  • Have broader knowledge and better work performance.  (Research has found no relationship between job performance and an employee’s age.)
  • Are happier and have better interpersonal skills
  • Quit less, use far less sick days and have less accidents
  • Are more flexible in their work schedules
  • Cost less:  The market dictates salaries based on experience, not age. While health care use is greater, they typically don’t have dependents to pay for and don’t contend with pregnancies or childcare issues, so there is a strong offset.

So what do we do?

The workforce is rapidly aging.  By 2020 those fifty-five and older will make up almost 40% of the employed.  There will be less young workers joining the ranks.  Employers will be forced to confront the ageism issue head-on.  But this can be a huge win for all parties.   The solution starts with the employer.

  • Educate young supervisors regarding the stereotypes of the older worker.  Begin dispelling these misconceptions.  Help them to be empowered as managers.
  • Teach young supervisors how to give feedback and guidance and how to hold older workers accountable.
  • Create a culture that embraces those in mid-career (just as some companies have outreach programs for military veterans).  Establish benefits and rewards that are relevant to the older worker, these typically are not pay and promotions.

What can a fifty-year old out of work do to help themselves get hired?

  • Push back against the stereotypes, but don’t overdo it.
  • Build a resume that reflects the high accomplishments of the past fifteen years at the most. Ten is better, especially in the tech fields.  Anything beyond that starts to ‘age’ a resume and a prospective employee.  Emphasize your problem solving ability, people skills, leadership experiences and examples of sound judgment.
  • Be sure to enroll in continuing education courses and certification programs – especially in the technical fields – that show an on-going interest in career development and progression.
  • Get active in career affinity groups in person and online.  Become visible and vocal.
  • Get in shape and maintain a healthy diet.   The younger you feel the younger people will feel you are.  Age isn’t all about days on a calendar.

And a final word to the prospective employee, don’t pre-judge the employers.  Your wisdom comes from your experience and your experience has value.  The young hiring manager will see that if you present yourself respectfully.  You may well be the answer to their workforce problem.

Bodies in the Water Reply

I once consulted for an early-stage company CEO who loved negotiating salary deals with new hires.  No matter what salary compromise or offer I suggested to him he would demand I go back to the candidate and offer much less – even when he truly wanted and needed the employee and could afford what they asked.  It was about power and winning.  He saw squeezing a dime and getting the candidate to bend as a way to show his authority early.   What he was really doing was breeding contempt not only for him but for his company’s image in the marketplace.  Turn-over was high and an expensive drain on his resources and he couldn’t understand why.  He was a decent man and fun person to be around, but this management tick almost derailed him.

One morning he said to me, “I love tough economies and recessions.  There are usually lots of bodies in the water.”  He was, of course, referring to the unemployed.  He saw this pool (pun intended) of bodies as a desperate bunch who would take nickels on the dollar to come work for him.  It just doesn’t happen that way.  Here is why:  The assumption made is that the skill set being sought happens to belong to a member of the unemployed ranks.  Worse yet, the assumption is that the IDEAL person is among the unemployed and needing of a job.   Here is the reality:  During economic downturns people tend to cautiously stay put if employed and will wait out the economic storm.  When good times return the exodus can be pretty high of employees who felt underpaid or taken advantage of.  The disenfranchised become highly recruitable.  It is happening right now in our Seattle market.

My caution to clients is always the same – don’t generalize during good or bad markets – there may be a large pool of unemployed, but they may not be of the right fit for the given openings.   Accept that recruiting the right person takes planning and a deliberate process and investment.  Spend the time and energy to find and hire the best person for the job instead of trusting the winds of economic change to send along the dream candidate at a cut-throat salary.