How to avoid ageism when recruiting new talent

Category: Employment Discrimination

More Info: Employment Litigation

In a twist of irony, older workers with decades of experience and expertise are still finding themselves overlooked and undervalued by recruiters and hiring managers. 

According to a study conducted by the University of California, Irvine, workers over 40 are only about half as likely to get a job offer than younger employees — but their age is not the only detrimental factor. Unconscious biases about their experience and the expectations that come with it may disqualify them from the get-go, says Jill Chapman, senior performance consultant at Insperity, an HR administrative services company. 

“As a recruiter for most of my career, I hear things like, ‘I need a college grad to do this, or I want somebody with just a couple of years of experience,’” says Chapman. “You’re forgetting about a whole pool of people who would be very good at what you’re looking for.”

Older employees face many hurdles when it comes to the job search: while candidates with 10 or more years of experience may seem like the obvious choice for recruiters and hiring managers, Chapman notes that many companies may be unwilling to offer higher compensation for the advanced skill set that comes with an older employee. On the other hand, leaders within the organization may just assume that the position is beneath someone with more experience. 

“Somebody out of school won’t demand the same salary that somebody with more years of experience might demand because of all the extra things that they can bring to the role,” says Chapman. “And sometimes [hiring managers] will look at a job and say, “That’s not something I would want to do, so I assume that nobody else would want to do it either.’”

This thinking may promote ageism in the workplace, since older candidates cannot even get through the door and be a visible presence at work. While Age Discrimination in Employment Act forbids employers from treating candidates or employees over 40 years old less favorably than their younger counterparts, that does not stop unconscious bias from entering the picture — and even unknowingly perpetuated by older workers too, explains Chapman. 

“We can do it to ourselves by saying stuff like, ‘I forgot. It must be because I’m old,” she says. “That doesn’t seem problematic on the surface, but if that language persists, we will look at one part of the population a little differently.” 

Although Chapman admits those kinds of jokes may be protective, with older employees possibly already feeling disconnected from their colleagues, it does add to the perception that older employees are less capable of success in the workplace. Still, Chapman puts the bulk of the responsibility on employers, who have the power to make older employees feel accepted from the start. 

That means revising the recruitment process, beginning with the language used in job posts. Chapman advises that hiring managers never put a maximum on years of experience, and note the least amount of years they want instead. Depending on the role, it also may not be necessary to demand an applicant’s entire work history and graduation year — requesting relevant experience makes it easier on the applicant and the company, explains Chapman. She also suggests not asking for birthdays, unless a background check is required further along in the hiring process.

“The language in the posting can be very important in deciding if you’re drawing from a wide pool of potential candidates,” she says. “Let’s open this up and get more people in the funnel. That’s how you increase your chances of ending up with diverse candidates.”

Chapman emphasizes the importance of having a diverse pool of internal employees interview candidates as well, so the interviews are as fair and welcoming as possible. Companies may need to check their online image too, ensuring their career pages represent the range of people they employ. 

But for Chapman, one of the most important things recruiters can do is question why a hiring manager believes a candidate is not a good “fit,” which could be code for the candidate just being older than the average employee at the company. It’s better to expose an unconscious bias sooner than later, says Chapman. 

“Just because somebody’s old, you can’t assume they’re ready for retirement,” she says. “We are all living longer. We all want to contribute longer. We all have a passion to do something good for ourselves and for others.”

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