Today’s workforce is very diverse – employees vary widely in their beliefs, their cultural heritage, and their age. Given the economic downturn of recent years, more and more people have had to delay retirement, making this one of the oldest workforces in more than half a century. In the U.S., almost 1 in 5 people ages 65 and older are working or looking for a job. As the workforce has grown older, age discrimination has become something you need to watch out for.
Age discrimination is any instance in which an older employee is treated differently due to his or her age. For instance, if a company denies a candidate employment because he is less than ten years away from retirement; a manager skips over a more experienced employee for a promotion or for the lead on a project; or a younger employee cracks jokes about an older employee’s age – all of these instances are examples of how ageism can creep up in the workplace.
Some of these examples are easier to detect and avoid, like denying employment due to age, which is in direct violation of U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Law. Others however, are more difficult to spot. Here are a few signs to watch out for, so that you can identify instances of ageism in your company.
These types of actions should be identified and quickly addressed, in order to avoid discrimination or harassment lawsuits. An atmosphere of inequity can be detrimental to employee morale and productivity in general; and if unchecked, it can get worse. If older employees feel discriminated against or treated differently, they’ll be less likely to participate in activities or volunteer ideas. This, in turn, can aggravate the discrepancies in treatment.
Another thing to consider is what older employees bring to the table. It may be easy for some younger people to think that older employees bring little to the workplace – they may think they’re not quick enough, tech-savvy enough, or hip enough. There may also be resentment among younger employees who want to move up in the company but can’t because older employees are delaying retirement and staying in upper management positions longer.
Yet older employees are incredibly valuable to employers. A survey done by the Society for Human Resource Management and the AARP found that about 50 percent of employers are worried about the loss of older employees in the next few years, and 40 percent think it will negatively affect their whole industry.
Older employees have years of experience working in their industries and in some cases in one company. This means they have a wealth of accumulated knowledge that is not always easy to transfer to others. They have lived through changes, dealt with major issues, and solved problems for years. That knowledge can make them invaluable to employers who depend on them for anything from their historical perspectives to their extensive network.
Knowing how valuable older employers are, and how important it is to avoid potential legal actions against your company or a demoralized workforce, it makes sense to fight against ageism. For starters, HR departments should always try to make sure that age bias doesn’t happen, by listening to both older and younger employees and looking for clues that point to ageism. HR should also provide all employees with information about ageism and encourage employees to come forth if they witness it. You need to make it clear that the company will not stand for ageism and that appropriate action will be taken if any employee engages in this behavior.
Secondly, managers should be aware that ageism exists. They should be aware of the consequences of treating older employees differently by leaving them out of meetings or not considering them for promotions or projects. They should also keep an eye on all employees to make sure they’re not engaging in ageist behavior.
Finally, older employees shouldn’t let their coworkers get away with ageism. They should be encouraged to address the issue either directly with the coworker engaging in the behavior, or by reporting him or her to HR or management. If the behavior continues, they may contact the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to make sure that their case is heard.