Job Ads for ‘Digital Natives’ Raise Age Bias Concerns

By Catherine Skrzypinski Jun 18, 2015
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As the Class of 2015 continues to enter the workforce, employment experts are instructing recruiters and employers to avoid using the term “digital native” in job postings.

Several employment lawyers say companies specifically looking for digital natives may be discriminating against older workers.

“It’s not a smart business decision,” said Stephen Hirschfeld, partner at Hirschfeld Kraemer LLP and CEO and founder of the Employment Law Alliance. “They are asking for trouble with employment law and will set themselves up for litigation.”

Hirschfeld, who is based in San Francisco—the epicenter for digital natives—said many startups in the city do not consult with HR professionals to make decisions about human resource needs.

“Employers should not use the term digital native because it insinuates older candidates need not apply,” added Sean Morrison, a New Orleans-based business attorney.

Who Are Digital Natives?

The term digital native is not yet widely known, said Kyle Bruss, director of talent acquisition for Talent Plus in Lincoln, Neb. “If you polled most Americans, they would most likely not understand the term, or [would] misinterpret it.”

Educational consultant Marc Prensky defined digital natives in 2001 as people born during the era of digital technology. They have been well-versed in Internet technologies and applications from an early age.

Hope Eastman, principal with Paley Rothman in Bethesda, Md., and co-chair of the firm’s employment law group, said the definition of a digital native is similar to that of a native speaker in that a digital native is “someone who learned a ‘language’ from birth, as opposed to someone who learned the language as a second language,” she said.

Avoiding Labels

Jay Wallace, a partner at Bell Nunnally and Martin LLP in Dallas, said using the term digital native in a job posting is an example of labeling a candidate. “Labels stick with people,” he added. “Posting a job ad for a digital native will rub people the wrong way.”

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), help wanted notices should not advertise for “young professionals,” “college students” or “recent college graduates” because those phrases violate the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). The federal law protects employees and job applicants age 40 and older from discrimination based on age.

While Joseph Olivares, an EEOC public affairs specialist in Washington, D.C., did not comment on the term digital native specifically, he noted that the EEOC would closely scrutinize employment notices that include specific references to disclose age.

Morrison said he would discourage his clients from using the term digital native in their job ads. “It raises the same problem as ‘recent graduates,’ which got plenty of businesses in trouble,” he explained. “Those over 40 are in the ADEA’s protected class, and since a digital native is usually someone born after 1980, it can open a business to an age discrimination claim.”

Alexander Ruggie, public relations director of 911 Restoration, a Los Angeles-based home restoration company, said he would not use digital natives in recruitment collateral—not because the term is discriminatory, but because it isn’t specific enough.

“The term digital native isn’t a way to discriminate against older candidates, it’s a way of eliminating those who are computer-challenged from clogging the applicant pipeline,” Ruggie said. Companies who use the term are not necessarily looking for a young person, he suggested, but someone who can update an Excel spreadsheet, write a social media post and handle other computer-related tasks, for example.

Employment experts advise HR departments to detail what specific skill sets are needed for a particular position. In lieu of using the term digital native, a phrase like “familiar with the latest technology” would suffice, Morrison explained.

“You don’t have to focus on digital natives to get great, tech-savvy people—you simply must recruit in their language,” Bruss concluded. “It’s shortsighted and risky to only go after one generation for a specific skill set. [Young employees] don’t have a monopoly on being tech-savvy.”

Catherine Skrzypinski is a freelance writer based in Vancouver.

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