How to Handle Age Discrimination in Hiring and Retention

Age discrimination in hiring and retention can reduce company knowledge and lock out high performers. Here are ways to reduce it.

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How to Handle Age Discrimination in Hiring and Retention

Here's what you need to know:

  • Under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), workers over the age of 40 are protected at the federal level
  • To reduce the likelihood of ageism in the hiring process, take steps including not filtering candidates by graduation or birth date, not asking questions related to age, and more
  • Tips for an ageism-free workplace include shutting down snide comments, including older employees in group events, providing equal opportunities for advancement, and more

According to the AARP, 62% of employees over the age of 50 face ageism at work. And while many consider 50 to be the age that tips older employees into the realm of ageism, workers as young as 40 have experienced age discrimination.

But many HR managers and small business owners are looking to reduce ageism in the workplace. To do so, they will need to ensure that they have blind hiring practices and provide older adult employees with retention incentives.

Reasons for termination, too, shouldn’t hinge on an employee’s age but on legitimate grounds, such as low performance or redundancy.

Before we get into all the details, let’s define ageism, look at some examples, and highlight ways to reduce age discrimination in the office.

What is ageism in the workplace and the ADEA?

Ageism is another word for age discrimination. While both young and older employees can be discriminated against because of their age, ageism more commonly refers to discrimination against workers over the age of 40.

Why 40?

Under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), workers over the age of 40 are protected at the federal level. This employment law protects older adult workers from discrimination in the hiring, retention, and termination processes.

What are some examples of age discrimination in the workplace?

The easiest way to find incidents of age discrimination is to look up lawsuits. Here are a few age discrimination cases to consider:

  • Pharmaceutical company Lilly USA, LLC is being sued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for intentionally under-hiring older candidates and giving preference to Millennials.
  • A 64-year-old Apple executive was denied a retention bonus worth $800k — for the first time in 11 years — allegedly because the HR team no longer believed he required an incentive due to being close to retirement age.
  • IBM is being sued by hundreds of employees after emails revealed that executives wanted to force out older employees and referred to them as “dinobabies.”

What are the signs of age discrimination in hiring?

For HR teams and small businesses, hiring is already a tedious and complex process. That’s why age discrimination can seep into the workflow, even unintentionally.

Here are some signs that your hiring process might be tainted by ageism:

  • Your objective is to hire a specific age group for a role.
  • Executives ask you to “make room” for younger employees or ask for “new blood.”
  • Interviewers ask older job seekers about their retirement plans.
  • Interviewers hold assumptions about older workers — such as their ability to keep up with the work or their ability to understand technology.
  • The team uses graduation or birth dates as a key filter.

How to eliminate ageism from the hiring process

For many, finding an employee who will stick around seems the opposite of hiring an individual on the verge of retirement.

But the fact is that not every older professional is looking to retire or retire soon. Whether it’s due to the joy of work or financial constraints, every candidate deserves a fair shake. An age-blind process is ideal for nixing the potential for discrimination.

An age-blind process is ideal for nixing the potential for discrimination.

One ongoing study by David Neumark at the National Bureau of Economic Research discovered that non-age-blind hiring processes reduced job offers for older candidates by 68%.

And with an age-blind process? Older applicants were hired at an identical or higher rate than younger job candidates.

To reduce the likelihood of ageism in the hiring process:

  • Don’t filter candidates by graduation or birth date
  • Don’t include age as a factor in your hiring process
  • Refrain from asking questions related to retirement and age at the interview.
  • Focus on candidate qualifications.
  • Consider the experience an older candidate can bring to the role.

Age discrimination and retention

But ageism doesn’t just appear during hiring. Older employees are often at risk as well. While employees over the age of 50 are more likely to stay with the company for the same reasons as younger employees, they may be cut out of common retention incentives.

This can increase churn and cause organizations to lose high-performing, highly-knowledgeable employees.

For example, older employees may not be recommended for promotions since they are “going to retire.” The same reason is often used to deny older workers retention bonuses and professional development opportunities.

It’s also possible that older employees get sidelined when it comes to fun activities — such as in-office parties, lunches with the boss, and other perks.

6 tips for an ageism-free workplace

An age discrimination-free workplace is attainable. These 6 actionable tips can get you started:

1. Shut down snide comments immediately

Discrimination of any kind can negatively affect morale, and the same is true of ageism. And negative comments around age are common —about 1/3 of older adults have heard them at work.

Follow the anti-discrimination guidelines in the employee handbook if you hear negative words and phrases being used against older employees.  Taking prompt action keeps the workplace healthy and tells employees you take personal safety and comfort seriously.

2. Include older employees in group events

Are there any fun activities that department teams collaborate on together? Think fantasy football, March Madness brackets, or movie night? If so, ensure that older employees have a seat at the table and feel welcome.

3. Ensure restructuring isn’t about laying off older workers

Layoffs happen, but when they do, the criteria for restructuring should be consistent. The last thing you want is to terminate a high-performing employee because the role is redundant…and then rehire for that role.

Not only does it waste money — since you have to spend dollars rehiring — but it also lowers employee morale and opens your organization up to an age discrimination claim.

4. Provide equal opportunities for advancement

An employee doesn’t necessarily reach the pinnacle of their career at age 50. Everyone has their own journey. Some might peak at 30, others at 70. There’s really no way to tell, and you shouldn’t try.

Instead, it’s better to provide all workers with the tools they need to grow and succeed. Older employees benefit from professional development courses, workshops, conferences, and promotions just as much as their younger counterparts. And they can bring just as much value, if not more.

5. Don’t focus on retirement

When hiring and retaining employees, it’s common to consider the retirement age. But retirement is a personal choice, and it’s not limited to older workers. With the popularity of Financial Independence, Retire Early (FIRE), many young workers are eager to make their fortune and exit their roles.

But you don’t want an employee who is just there to collect a paycheck — regardless of their age. You want someone who enjoys their work and provides value.

Instead of looking at the retirement of older employees, check in with them annually about their career goals and wishes. You can still focus on their future without believing they will leave the company.

6. Keep in contact with workers who do retire

Eventually, an employee may choose to retire. But if you’ve managed to avoid ageism in the workplace, maintain that relationship. Retirement is a long road, and sometimes employees like to check in or even mentor younger employees.

You may want to consider keeping a list of retired employees, so you can ask them to give a workshop or attend company events. It may seem unnecessary, but this form of community-building goes a long way in cementing current and former employee trust in your organization. And this positively can filter down into customer interactions.

What’s your biggest 2022 HR challenge that you’d like to resolve

Answer to see the results

The importance of creating an inclusive workplace

A truly welcoming, inclusive, and high-performing workplace begins in Human Resources and People Operations. Leadership that takes the initiative to include all workers — regardless of their age, gender, nationality, sexuality, or any other identifier — has a roster of employees who focus on high-value work.

The shift from ageism to age acceptance is simply acknowledging that employees create value at each stage of their life journey.

The easiest way to start is to craft and maintain a statement about diversity and inclusion. Once you define your commitment to inclusion, you can design a healthy and productive work environment.

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