How Do You Deal With Age Discrimination?

Organizations Often Focus On Sexism And Racism But Overlook Ageism.

By Steve Schumacher

Unlike many cultures around the world that value and respect their elders, our society in America tends to de-value older generations and discount their contributions. As an older adult, I see it in the body language of people I encounter. I have my own business so I am not faced with ageism from others in the workplace, but see and feel it in business meetings from time to time. It can be disconcerting, but I am not in a position to change it, so I do not worry about it. You cannot control the actions of others. You can only control how you react.

While most organizations have robust and comprehensive policies against many forms of discrimination, age discrimination seems to be almost accepted in the workplace. A good deal of that acceptance is a reflection of how our society accepts minimizing our seniors. 

A recent AARP study showed that 78% of older workers have experienced age discrimination. Ageism is so pervasive that most people do not even realize that a law has been in place for more than 50 years making it illegal. It happens in recruiting and hiring, on-the-job situations, and downsizing. 

Here are a few signs of age discrimination in the workplace:

  • Training opportunities tend to go to the younger employees. The thinking is that older employees are not interested in bettering themselves. Exclusion from attendance at professional conferences may be limited for senior workers.
  • Challenging assignment opportunities may be doled out to younger employees. Monotonous or unpleasant assignments going primarily to older employees.
  • Subtle or overt comments about advancing age, nearing retirement, abilities decreasing and slowing down. 
  • Being passed over for raises and promotions.

As a leader in your organization, part of your job is to be on the alert for all forms of discrimination and eliminate them. Here are some ideas on how to go about that responsibility.

Build a comprehensive policy. Define age bias and give examples. Detail how to report it if a person sees it or experiences it firsthand. Using this policy, check your processes of hiring, recruiting, performance reviews, promotions, etc. Look for gaps in those standing processes and make improvements. Of course, the consequences of promoting, or engaging in age discrimination must be part of the policy. Have a diverse group of employees review the policy and point out any gaps.

Training. Train all employees, with the top executives going first, on all aspects of ageism in the workplace. All employees and stakeholders must participate in the training to cover all bases. Make sure the training is not just lecture. Get trainers that know how to engage people in a training session. Spread it out over a week or two and give people homework between sessions. Implement regular follow-up sessions so the initial training does not become the flavor-of-the-month.

Culture of valuing experience. Work to build a culture where managers, and others, respect and appreciate the experience that older works bring. Pay a lot of attention to loyalty and skills vs. age. Proactively call upon your veteran employees to share their experience with younger employees on an informal basis or formal mentoring programs. Honor the fact that experienced employees are loyal and a storehouse of valuable information that has been gathered for years.

Ensure equitable promotion opportunities. Many times, managers have tunnel vision when looking to promote and develop employees for higher positions. They tend to think that their investment of time and energy in developing others is best spent with younger workers. To overcome this sometimes unconscious bias, require that every employee has a specific development plan, regardless of age. Opportunities to improve abilities must be shared equally among everyone.

Collaboration. Encourage work teams, and other forms of collaboration that include younger and older workers. People tend to gravitate toward others of a similar age, so you will need to set a clear expectation and model the behavior you are seeking. Younger workers will benefit from the voices of experience and older workers will benefit from exposure to new ideas.

Walk around. Spend time walking around looking for overt displays of ageism. Check bulletin boards that may have notices targeted at younger employees. Listen to conversations in lunch rooms to see if they are appropriate. Check your website to make sure all ages are depicted equally.

None of the above items will work if you, as a leader, do not model the behavior of inclusion and speak out about activities that go against that inclusion. 

Steve Schumacher is a management consultant, trainer and public speaker with more than 25 years of experience in numerous industries throughout North America, including aggregates operations. He can be reached at [email protected]

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