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Ageism in the Workplace: What It is & How to Prevent It

A comfortable workplace squashes discrimination of all kinds. Below is an in-depth guide on understanding and preventing ageism.

As the phrase goes, age is nothing but a number. It often doesn’t have any bearing on someone’s ability to do their job, but some organizations – and even some of our peers – might think differently. Aged-based discrimination isn’t uncommon in the workplace, and it can make for an unproductive environment for both young and old team members. Below is a guide to the question “what is ageism in the workplace?” so you can recognize and eliminate it. 

What is ageism in the workplace?

Simply put, ageism is when someone faces discrimination based on their age. This kind of bias can affect people young and old, but it typically happens the most to people 55 or older. Left unchecked, it can easily make for a hostile work environment for older adults, who are typically your most experienced employees. It’s also illegal: The Age Discrimination in Employment Act bans it.

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What motivates ageism in the workplace?

Like other biases, ageism stems from broad assumptions and stereotypes spread over a whole demographic. For example, younger workers might be seen as lazy, less reliable, less motivated, and just less than more experienced individuals. 

For older workers, it’s a bit different. Their age can invoke positive stereotypes of reliability and wisdom, but negative ones are hiding in the corner as well. Viewed in a negative light, an older workforce can be seen as less adaptable, unwilling to learn, and technologically illiterate. 

What can ageism in the workplace look like?

Age-based discrimination in the workplace can be present at every level of an organization – it doesn’t have one form. It can look a little different depending on what aspect of your operation you’re looking at. 

1Job descriptions

It’s relatively easy for job descriptions to accidentally be ageist because they narrow down potential applicants. The bias can be obvious – for example, lines like “only accepting college graduates” or “specifically looking for younger workers” are immediately ageist. Even if well-intended, these phrases might discourage older people during their job search. 

However, a job description can also be more subtle about ageism if they use words like: 

  • Digital native
  • Active
  • Energetic
  • High-potential
  • Fresh
  • Tech-savvy

These words all paint a picture of a younger person.

2Applicant screening

The screening process is when you filter out job candidates with undesirable traits. It’s pretty easy to tell when ageism comes into play here. The person reading the resume will note things like:

  • A lack of social media accounts
  • Use of old email platforms like AOL or Hotmail
  • Resume longer than three pages
  • A college graduation date from several years ago

Some hiring managers who see even one of these traits might reject the person in question. That’s ageism. 

3Candidate interviews

Biases often don’t disappear when meeting a candidate face-to-face. In a lot of cases, they even strengthen after hiring managers see someone’s age. Typically, when the interviewer sees older candidates, the questions can shift in ways that can appear ageist. For example:

  • When are your retirement plans? This unfairly implies they are close enough to retirement age to have those plans.
  • Will the organization’s technology demands be an issue for you? Technologies are so prevalent today that asking someone if they can use them is basically saying you don’t think they can.
  • Are you comfortable working for younger leadership? This question makes assumptions about the candidate’s age while also suggesting they’ll react negatively to a younger leader. 
  • Do you have any chronic illnesses or similar health issues? This question should be relegated to healthcare forms and not used in interviews. That’s because, if you’re young, you’re usually assumed to be in good health. In other words, this question is basically a mask for ageism.

4Promotions and other job rewards

Pay increases, promotions, or other performance-based rewards shouldn’t be exclusive to only one demographic within your company. Ageism could be a factor if you find that younger employees get a majority of the awards for doing hard work. 

5Business decision-making

Making decisions based on unfair or false assumptions is part and parcel of many biases, including ageism. Without correction, organizations will often:

  • Assign technology-centered assignments to young team members over older ones.
  • Deny additional training to older team members, assuming they’re not tech-savvy enough to learn. 
  • Assume that older people hold certain political beliefs over others. 

6Everyday conversation

Sometimes, ageism is less subtle than requirements on a job form or questions in an interview. In fact, older adults on the team might start to experience age discrimination in everyday conversation. Sometimes it’s innocent teasing about their age, while other times, it’s outright verbal abuse about them being “over the hill.” It might seem like harassment, and it often is.

7Work and disciplinary action

Sometimes, an organization’s leadership baselessly just doesn’t want to deal with older adults at all. Usually, they won’t (or can’t) just fire them, though, so instead, they pile on mountains of work and deliver harsh punishments. Think of it as “quiet firing.” It’s a way to nudge someone to quit of their own volition. It includes:

  • Higher standards for their work than for their peers’ work.
  • Less understanding of mistakes.
  • Harsher punishments for even minor errors. 

8Social events

Everyone likes to have fun once in a while, regardless of their age. But some organizations exclude their older team members from these events – they falsely assume older adults have physical limitations that get in the way. Even if an older adult on the team does have limited mobility, excluding them from outings still isn’t okay. That’ll just make those team members feel isolated from the rest of the team. Invite them instead and let them make the choice to decline.

Benefits of hiring all ages

In an ever-changing market, limiting your pool of candidates is the last thing you want to do. Hiring both the young and old has some notable advantages for your organization, including the below.

1Increased loyalty

Older people may have a better idea of where they want their careers to go. This means that, if they’ve chosen to stick around at your organization, there’s a better chance they’ll stay for the long haul too.

2Valuable experience

Yes, some employees are older, but that can make them wiser too. Hiring older adults can provide a wealth of industry-relevant skills that bring instant value to your team. 

3Different perspectives and ideas

Young people bring new ideas, and an aging workforce’s experience can temper the most out-there notions while highlighting the ones that work. Combining the two perspectives can give you the kind of team that produces the million-dollar ideas that drive any great organization forward. 

6 Ways to prevent ageism in the workplace

Ageism holds your organization back since it makes an entire demographic feel like they can’t keep up. That idea is far from the truth, but you’ll need to work to stop it from taking root. Here’s how.

1Set and review policies and procedures

Don’t let the term “age discrimination” have a vague definition for your team – that gives everyone permission to come up with their own meanings. You’d be surprised how many biases slip under the radar because no one agrees on what counts as bias and what doesn’t. 

2Fight stereotypes and stop making assumptions 

The first step to conquering a bias is acknowledging you have it in the first place. That way, you can better recognize when you’re slipping back into that headspace and get yourself out of it.

3Offer training and promotional opportunities for all team members

There are sensitivity courses your team can take to learn about ageism and why it’s not okay. This can come in handy if ageism is already ingrained in your organization.

4Be alert for social cues in the workplace

Noticing ageism in the workplace can be difficult, but there are telltale, nonverbal signs. For example, someone might be unhappy with a comment even if they’re laughing along – look at the rest of their body language. Keep watch for those cues, and you might be able to sniff out any ageism that you need to address. 

5Rethink your interview processes

You probably won’t have to change your interview process entirely, but it is likely home to a lot of bias. You should teach all your interviewers to avoid questions about a job candidate’s retirement, family, and other non-work matters. Private information should stay private if you want to avoid your organization being accused of age discrimination. 

6Enforce non-discriminatory practices

The most critical step for scrubbing bias out of your organization is setting up rock-solid, non-discriminatory procedures. Every employee should know that you don’t tolerate ageism. They should also know exactly how to report any instances of it that they see. There shouldn’t be a slap on the wrist punishment for rule-breakers either. Some people out there will happily take a mile if you give an inch. 

Get rid of age discrimination for a healthier organization

Age discrimination never feels good, and it doesn’t reflect well on an organization. Even if you think it’s not happening within yours, it never hurts to check, because unknowingly letting it continue will hurt you in the long run. With Fellow, your team can help you weed out bias with real-time peer feedback that your team can use to anonymously report age discrimination. You can also use Fellow to plan and hold one-on-one meetings if you need to take disciplinary action. Ageism shouldn’t go unaddressed – with Fellow, you can act.

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Konstantin Tsiryulnikov

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