At Stanford University, during the 2018-2019 academic year, virtually every meeting of the faculty senate included a report—or two—on the university’s diversity efforts. Yet ageism was never addressed—and continues to go unnoticed. According to a faculty colleague, the former dean of the School of Engineering, who is now the Provost, appointed a strategy committee packed with young faculty members simply because, to use her highly inopportune phrase, "they are the future."
Clearly, diversity and inclusion are becoming a priority for all types of organizations. As of February 2018, diversity and inclusion roles, as a share of all job postings, were up by 35% from two years prior, according to Indeed. Meanwhile, PwC’s 18th Annual Global Survey noted that talent diversity and inclusiveness were now core components of competitiveness, and 77 percent of CEOs already had or intended to adopt a strategy that promotes D&I. Technology companies like eBay have even gone the extra step to regularly report their diversity statistics.
But, like with Stanford, virtually absent from most of these D&I conversations and action items is any mention of age. The arguments for valuing older employees are identical to the logic for emphasizing diversity and inclusion for other groups: In addition to being a matter of human rights (all people deserve equal opportunities and equal treatment), companies actually benefit from having a diverse workforce—and that includes diversity in age. After all, different perspectives often lead to more creative solutions and practices. Still, ageism in the workplace is a common and almost socially acceptable practice. It’s time for that to change.
Ageism Is Real
Ageism is a substantial workplace issue we need to address—especially because by 2022, more than one-third of the U.S. workforce will be over the age of 50.
In an AARP survey of adults over 45, 61% of respondents said that they had seen or personally experienced age discrimination. A review of academic studies of age bias in hiring and promotion concluded that "study after study has shown how employers... may not objectively evaluate job candidates’ potential productivity."
But it’s more than being passed over for career opportunities. A study by the Urban Institute found that of adults aged 51 to 54 who were employed full-time, some 56 percent subsequently experienced an employer-initiated involuntary job separation, with typically devastating financial consequences (not to mention psychological repercussions).
Much like racism and sexism, ageism not only harms its victims, but it also infects a company’s culture, creates a less inclusive workplace and deprives organizations of the talent they need to compete and innovate. And it’s why companies need to include age as they work on broader D&I initiatives.
Many Myths About Older Employees Are False
So what exactly is driving this discriminatory behavior? Stereotypes about older workers that are as pervasive—and harmful—as those about other demographic groups. But, as is often the case, these beliefs are inconsistent with the evidence.
Contrary to popular mythology, youth is not a key attribute for founding a successful business. One study found that the average age of entrepreneurs was 42. Even considering just the top 0.1% of startups based on revenue growth during the first five years, founders started their companies, on average, at age 45.
There’s also no evidence to suggest that age is related to productivity. Stephen Cole, a sociologist at SUNY Stony Brook, reported decades ago that mathematicians, who, it was assumed, did their best work while young, experienced "no decline in the quality of work... as they progressed through their careers." And another review of studies found that productivity was constant as scientists aged.
Such evidence suggests that companies can and do benefit from encouraging the hiring and retention of older workers, just as they can benefit from hiring and retaining women and people of color. In all of these instances, companies access a broader and better pool of talent.
Companies Should Expand Their D&I Efforts to Include Age
So how should we attack the problem? Fundamentally, research shows that measurement is important in influencing behavior. What gets measured gets managed. As companies increasingly report their D&I statistics for women, people of color and other groups, they should also report the data for the age distribution of their workforce.
There are other things companies can do as well. We know that language matters—that we see things, in part, by the way we refer to them—and that words can hurt. Many companies have banned racist, misogynist language and call out those who use terms that inflict psychological distress on others. A similar sensitivity to ageist language (even the use of more subtle terms like "energetic and fresh" or "digital natives" to describe a company’s ideal employees)—would be a nice step in the right direction. Stereotypes about older workers and disparaging comments about them remain too common, as numerous surveys attest.
When symphony orchestras wanted to hire more women, they did blind auditions where people could not see the gender of the person performing. When companies sought to build more inclusive workplaces, they focused on eliminating interview questions or signals that would not only harm someone’s chance of gaining employment, but also their likelihood of accepting an offer because the questions made them feel unwelcome. Consider taking dates off of resumes and banish questions that call into doubt someone’s energy or commitment just because of their age.
The parallels with other diversity and inclusion initiatives are many and direct. When companies do for age what they have already begun to do for race and gender, they will be well on their way to building a more diverse and welcoming workplace.
Until workplaces take ageism seriously, it will continue, depriving employers of wisdom, experience and talent, and inflicting unjust behavior on people simply because they have "too many birthdays."
Image: Creative Commons
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Workplace Diversity: ’The Era of Colorblindness is Over’
Workplace diversity is a pressing topic among HR pros. It's heavily scrutinized in blogs, at conferences and during training sessions. That attention often focuses on how diversity affects the company — but what about how minorities' experiences affect people personally and professionally? Google employee Erica Baker addressed that question recently on Medium with a first-person account of her experiences as a minority in the tech industry. Here, Dr. Kecia Thomas, a professor of industrial-organizational psychology at the University of Georgia, explains how individual workers' experiences can reverberate throughout an organization: How do the experiences of minority workers affect the entire company? The concerns of under-represented workers often represent the concerns of other workers, as well. The issues that minority workers might experience are not all that different from the experiences of people who were the first generation to go to college in their families, or people who might come from a lower economic class. Attending to diversity actually helps to improve the workforce overall. Some of the challenges for ethnic minority workers, for example, are that they often find themselves as one-of-a-kind in their workplace. I’m talking about high-level professionals, people with graduate degrees and above. There are implicit biases that might hinder their access to informal networks, to mentoring or to professional development opportunities that could subsequently impair their performance and career development. I think there are also experiences that newcomers face in regard to feeling invisible and voiceless. How do these biases affect people in the majority? It’s not a stretch to say that the lack of exposure for many white colleagues can also be a source of anxiety that can inhibit their opportunity for authentic interactions with a new colleague who is different, ethnically or culturally. Any time we have those barriers to communication or to establishing authentic relationships, it’s a potential barrier to our performance and our ability to work together productively. Whose role is it to consider these issues within a company — and to take steps to address them? When it comes to any type of organizational change, it always begins at the top. Leaders have to understand demographic shifts in their labor force, how those shifts might be reflected — and the needs and priorities of their workers. When leaders are committed to a diverse and inclusive workplace, HR is empowered to put in place the strategies that are equally effective across a diversity of workers. There’s also a culture of the organization that has to be addressed to make sure that people are held accountable if they violate non-discrimination and anti-harassment policies. Too often, companies don’t have clear policies, or they're not communicated effectively. And even if they’re communicated effectively, they’re not always followed. We are at a critical point as a nation in regard to how we address diversity. We are seeing a lot of blatant forms of discrimination and violence occur, but we’re also seeing a younger generation that is so multicultural and inclusive. We’re seeing an increasing number of states embrace same-sex marriage. So there’s kind of a tidal wave of issues going on that reflect our differences. We have an opportunity to do this well and see this as a way to promote innovation, creativity and greater collaboration. A lot of the research I’ve done with Vicky Plaut [professor of law and social science at the University of California, Berkeley] suggests that we need to embrace multiculturalism and that the era of colorblindness is over. In fact, colorblindness is a signal to members of ethnic and racial minority groups that they are now vulnerable to discrimination. Photo: Can Stock
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Dear ReWorker: Handling Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?
Dear ReWorker, We recently had a sexual harassment complaint about an employee. Out of curiosity, I Googled this person and found several websites that list his name and include details about his inappropriate sexual activities and relationships. Aside from the internal complaint of sexual harassment in the workplace, the internet posts bother me very much. The situation certainly does not make the company look good and it tells me a lot about the employee's moral and ethical standards. Can I fire him for the complaint as well as what I found out on the Internet? Sincerely, Tempted to Terminate ___________________________________________________________________________________ Dear Tempted to Terminate, You are making this more difficult than it needs to be. If his offense at work was serious enough for termination, you fire him, regardless of his internet persona. It doesn't matter what he does outside of work or what he posts online—he misbehaved at work and should be punished. Now, this does become more complicated if his offense isn't necessarily fireable. Let's say someone complained that he made one dirty joke. That wouldn't (generally) be enough for a termination. If that's the case, here are a few other questions to consider. Is His Online Behavior Just Icky, or Is It Illegal? This is important because in some states or cities, you can't terminate someone for doing something controversial outside of work if it's legal. So, if you find his behavior objectionable but happen to live in one of these jurisdictions, you can't terminate him for that behavior. If you live outside these areas, employees don't have the right to do icky things and brag about them on the internet, even if it's outside of the workplace. There's no free speech in the workplace, and as long as his questionable behavior didn't include him starting a union, you can terminate him for outside activities. Are You Discriminating Based on Gender or Sexual Orientation? If a woman were saying the same things online as the employee in question, would you be okay with it? If your answer is yes, then you're discriminating illegally. If he were a different sexual orientation, would you be okay with it? If so, then you need to be extra cautious. The courts have reached mixed verdicts on whether you can legally discriminate against someone based on sexual orientation, but the reality is, even if your bias falls within the law, you shouldn't act on it. You should be judging people based on their work. Does the Behavior Reflect Badly on the Company? Assuming that his behavior at work wasn't serious enough for a termination, and assuming that it's not illegal to terminate him, should you still do it? Generally, managers should stay out of their employees' online lives. You wouldn't invite yourself over to dinner at their house, so why should you invite yourself onto their Facebook pages? With that said, you should take action if the employee's behavior reflects badly on the company. If there's nothing online linking him to your company, you should probably let it go. If it's easy to link him to your company, however, that's another story. Regardless of your decision you need to do two things: consult with your employment attorney and enforce the same standard across the board, regardless of age, gender, position or tenure. Your ReWorker, Suzanne Lucas, Evil HR Lady Photo: Creative Commons
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Why Starbucks' Unconscious Bias Training Probably Won't Change Much
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