Age Discrimination? Take It Seriously


Did you know that ageism is one of the most common forms of employment discrimination?

Indeed, age discrimination is a very real issue, and it has become more pervasive across America in recent years.

ProPublica and Washington think tank Urban Institute conducted an in-depth analysis of data from a Health and Retirement Study, finding that 56% of US workers over the age of 50 are forced out of long-time jobs.

In 2016, there were some 21,000 age discrimination complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), accounting for more than one-fifth of all discrimination charges that year.

And although that number dropped to slightly over 18,000 complaints the following year – note that the commission argues most ageism incidents likely go unreported – age discrimination charges filed with the EEOC have risen by nearly 50% since 1999.

The reality is that older workers regularly deal with negative stereotypes and discrimination at the office.

In fact, a 2018 study from AARPOpens a new window revealed that two-thirds of workers over 45 have reported seeing or experiencing age discrimination at work, while 90% agree that workplace ageism is common.

From a people-management standpoint, age discrimination exists at most large companies at every stage of the employee lifecycle – especially relating to hiring and firing.

IBM, for instance, has come under scrutiny recently as a growing number of former employees sue the company for alleged age discrimination. Most recently, Catherine Rodgers, an ex-senior executive from Big Blue, has come forward saying she was told to lie to the US governmentOpens a new window regarding the number of older workers being laid off by the IT giant.

In the affidavit filed in mid-January, Rodgers alleges that she was fired after warning that IBM was breaking age discrimination laws by laying off employees mainly over the age of 50. Rodgers says she was forced out for raising concerns regarding systematic age discrimination at IBM against workers over 40.

Similarly, in October, 2017, a former engineer at Verizon won a lawsuit for age discrimination, costing the company more than $600,000.

HR leaders to be aware of this issue to avoid age discrimination lawsuitsOpens a new window – and to make sure their organizations are inclusive and diverse.Opens a new window HR must ensure their companies have adequate hiring and recruitment policies and practices in place that in no way exclude any particular demographic or group.

Flying under the radar

Ageism in the workplace can take extremely subtle forms.

As those with hiring experience know, unconscious bias is a key issue and rooting it out is easier said than done.Opens a new window

Various studies investigating the effect of age on callbacks for job applicants have documented the impact. What’s not so clear is whether it results from conscious or unconscious bias.

The largest of these studiesOpens a new window , published by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, found that even if job applicants had similar skills and qualifications, those between the ages of 29 and 31 received 35% more callbacks than those ages 64 to 66.

Meanwhile, as Laurie McCann, a senior attorney with the AARP Litigation Foundation, testified in a December, 2017, US Senate hearing, hiring managers are careful not to discriminate overtly. Instead, they will use sly language and practices to make it clear that they don’t want older applicants, such as:

  • Recruiting for entry-level jobs specifically on college campuses
  • Requiring college-affiliated e-mail addresses to apply for jobs
  • Using AI systems that will screen out older candidates
  • Specifying that a job being posted has a cap on the number of years of work experience (e.g. stating that an applicant should have no more than X years experience)
  • Describing ideal candidates as “digital natives”

    In the current age of data, when online ad targeting is standard practiceOpens a new window , a New York Times and ProPublica investigation has found that major companies including Verizon, Amazon, Facebook, Goldman Sachs and Target have all been running recruitment campaigns that specifically target specific age groups.

    HR’s role

    HR can develop a consistent, reasonable and easily understandable policy that clearly stipulates the company’s stance on age discrimination. These guidelines should include actions for enforcement and discipline, and the policy must be distributed and communicated across the organization.

    Regarding employment, HR should always make note of the company’s goals when there are any workforce additions or reductions. Objective criteria should be documented when making hiring or layoff decisions – criteria which should not negatively target older workers.

    Ultimately, it’s up to HR departments to proactively keep on top of this issue, as with any form of discrimination, because there aren’t many tech applications that can help.

    Nevertheless, some tools can help:

  • HR chatbots can be installed for employees to feel more comfortable bringing up harassment and discrimination issues anonymously.
  • HR tech platforms offer managers oversight on employee functions and activities, helping to ensure that age discrimination – and all workplace discrimination – is weeded out.
  • Hiring: Such software can generate reports that give an overview of the socio-demographics of the workforce, allowing executives to keep an eye on applicant reports and make sure there is no discrimination in the hiring process.
  • Employee training: Managers can use HR tech platforms to monitor and oversee employee training modules in a digital database. Employers can use these systems to incorporate an organized training structure, for example, on diversity, inclusion and discrimination.