Have questions? Ask us!

Ageism in the Workplace: How to Identify and Address Ageism in Your Company

By nature, our world is incredibly diverse. Our communities are full of people with different backgrounds, ethnicities, physical and mental abilities, sexual orientations, gender identities, income levels, body shapes and religious beliefs. We speak different languages, use different communication styles, hold different opinions and core motivations. And while at times these differences can be a source of conflict, they shouldn’t have to mean division. In fact, we believe embracing diversity makes teams stronger, more creative and ultimately better. 

Through our new series Hiring Diverse, we hope to showcase the incredible benefits of prioritizing diversity and shed light on some of the common blind spots in recruitment strategies. 

Ageism in the Workplace

In this instalment of Hiring Diverse, I unpack the various ways ageism exists in our current workplace and how organizations can unpack their hidden or unconscious biases. 

“Ageism is rampant in the workplace, but nobody seems to be paying attention to it,” says Behavioral Scientist and President of Werk Labs, Dr. Pamela Cohen. “Even clients really clued in will talk about efforts for diversity and inclusion, but they never include people who are over a certain age in that effort.”

She argues that ageism is the most socially acceptable form of discrimination in the workplace, as it hasn’t yet reached a collective awareness. 

In order to bring attention to this ongoing issue, Werk Labs led a survey of more than 700 professionals over the age of 40 from diverse backgrounds and asked them to rate their experiences with ageism.

Overall, 60% of survey respondents indicated they had encountered ageism in their professional lives. 

Alarmingly, ageism is showing as most acute in the fastest-growing future of work industries such as financial services (85%), advertising and marketing (84%), and technology (81%).

According to Diversity Council Australia, age discrimination can start affecting you from as early as 45. 

A 2018 survey by the Australian Human Rights Commission found it was closer to 50, with almost a third (30%) of respondents indicating their organization has an age above which they are reluctant to recruit workers. The majority (68%) of respondents disclosing this reluctance indicated an unwillingness to hire workers over the age of 50.

Stereotypes and Discrimination

Negative stereotypes associated with ageing are often tied to the discrimination faced by older workers. Ideas about being too rigid, slow, or technologically challenged prevail, and as the future of work is increasingly more digital, this poses an increasing risk to whole groups of workers. 

A Cambridge study analyzing newspaper coverage and corporate media of 50 large-scale Dutch organizations found that “older employees were positively portrayed with regard to warmth stereotypes, such as trustworthiness, but negatively with regard to competence stereotypes, such as technological competence and adaptability.”

The study suggests that “because competence stereotypes weigh more heavily in employers’ productivity perceptions, these media portrayals might contribute to” decreased employment for older workers. 

Elsewhere, Jesus Yeves, et al. argue that “the impact of age on the relationship between job insecurity and job satisfaction might be influenced by age stereotypes.” 

However, they suggest, “negative meta-stereotypes” or perceived judgements “are more likely to negatively affect perceived employability.” 

In other words, older workers tend to believe younger people view them negatively, even in instances where it was proven to be the opposite. This perception can then, in turn, negatively affect how employable they believe they are. 

Where Does Ageism Appear in the Workplace?

According to Dr. Cohen, ageism most often affects workers in the job search period, with 75% of Werk Lab survey respondents saying they experienced discrimination during that time. 

However, that is not to say the discrimination ends once you get the job, 53% of respondents indicated they experience ageism within their workplace.

Application Process

If left unchecked, the application process can be rife with discriminatory or isolating language and methods. 

From Werk Lab’s study, 67% of surveyed professionals note they feel as though they experienced ageism due to the language and jargon in job descriptions.

Job listings that use phrases like, “We are an extremely young company” or “We move really fast around here” paint a picture of the kind of applicant you’re looking for — namely young and fast. These descriptors leave out entire groups of people.

Processes such as asking applicants to limit their resumes to one page or requiring them to limit their experience to x amount of roles or years show a preference for role-based expertise rather than the cumulative experience a long career provides. 

Asking for birth dates or graduation dates can also put age at the forefront rather than skillsets. 

Interviews

The ABC article titled, What to do when you face ageism in the workplace, tells the story of Tim Hessell, 48, an HR executive made redundant when his company went through a restructure. 

“It took him two years to find another full-time position, despite having 25 years of experience under his belt.” 

When he was 55, Tim was let go again but was unable to find permanent work again and eventually went back to university to do a PhD on the causes of ageism in the workplace.

“No-one ever told Tim he was too old to hire. Recruiters were more likely to say,” ‘You’re over qualified’ or ‘You’re not the right fit,’ or, ‘We think it’s better we give this role to someone who can grow through it, rather than yourself.”

Werk Lab’s study participants share similar experiences, saying interviewers often express concern about older candidates being “bored” or “not a culture fit.” In fact, 69% of surveyed professionals have encountered ageism in this way in their job search.

Study participants also express frustration at interviewers seeming to use tech-based questions to weed out older candidates. Even when the candidate is fully capable of the technical requirements or the technology is unrelated to the job, they feel they have to go above and beyond to prove their skillset. 44% of respondents have experienced this “weed out” practice.

To counter these interview-based scenarios, “95% of survey participants who reported experiencing ageism admitted to consciously trying to physically conceal or mask the appearance of their age in interviews.”

In the Workplace

In the workplace, ageism can present in scenarios both subtle and overt. Workers could be overlooked for promotions and career advancement, not receive organizational support to expand their skill set, or continually have their expertise ignored in favor of younger colleagues ideas. 

Reporting Age Discrimination

As with reporting any kind of discrimination, while it is illegal, it can be difficult to prove. Particularly as people who participate in ageist practices are often unaware that they are doing so.

Jesus Yeves, et al. argue that “older workers may respond more strongly to job insecurity than younger employees,” as they “may be more sensitive to economic insecurity or more dependent on their current jobs.” 

This added fear around being pushed out of the organization, may also affect how likely workers are to report their experiences. 

How Do You Address Ageism in the Workplace?

“To ensure an inclusive workplace, while preventing age discrimination, all companies should re-evaluate their recruitment materials and career development programs, while educating hiring managers and employees on unconscious biases and ageist practices in work,” Dr. Cohen says. “Regardless of race, religion, gender or age, we all have something to contribute to our respective employers, and we should feel empowered to do so.”

She shares her disappointment in the limited training, education and policies available to safeguard individuals who report instances of ageism.

According to, Employing Older Workers, a 2018 study by the Australian Human Rights Commission, “Only 8% of respondents report that line managers in their organization are given training on how to manage different generations, though 22% are given training on unconscious bias.”

Dr. Cohen suggests beginning with an audit. 

“Organizations and HR professionals need to critically analyze recruiting materials with an eye towards identifying ageism,” she says. “This audit includes assessing verbiage, tone, and visual elements such as photography that are included in both external and internal communication materials used for recruitment.”

Once this assessment is complete, you can move onto training and educating employees, particularly those in management positions. 

“Anyone within an organization who interviews prospective employees needs to undergo unconscious bias training that explicitly addresses ageism,” she says. “These trainings educate and bring awareness to identifying ageist practices that tend to occur in the hiring process.” 

Above all, organizations need to commit to change. 

“Combating ageism needs to start from the top. Organizational leaders need to come forward and take a clear stance against ageism in their workplace,” Dr. Cohen says. 

However, everyone plays a part in revealing hidden, often unconscious, biases. Reflecting, listening and being open to change is key to making workplaces more inclusive and diverse for everyone. 

 

— Bree Caggiati

Related Articles

Are you managing a remote or global team?

Join 14,000+ managers receiving remote guides and international HR resources!