Antiquated Assumptions Can Hurt Older Workers, Organizations

By Kathy Gurchiek Jun 26, 2015
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Employers that let stereotypes and myths about workers ages 50 and older influence their hiring decisions can miss out on a valuable talent pool, according to Cathy Ventrell-Monsees, senior counsel to Chairwoman Jenny R. Yang of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Ventrell-Monsees was the featured speaker during a June 2015 National Press Foundation (NPF) webinar, “The Challenges for Older Workers: Myths and the Acceptance of Age Discrimination in the Workplace.”

Among those myths: Older workers are less competent, motivated, energetic and adaptable. Ventrell-Monsees pointed to a 2012 AARP survey that found nearly two-thirds of 1,502 adults ages 45-74 who were working full- or part-time, were self-employed, or were looking for work reported age discrimination in the workplace.

Additionally, 92 percent said such discrimination was “very” or “somewhat” common, although 75 percent said their age has not caused their employers to treat them differently, according to the findings.

One common belief about older workers, Ventrell-Monsees said, is that they should retire to make room for younger workers. The Pew Research Center found, though, that Baby Boomer employment does not negatively affect the labor force activity of the young.

Another is that older workers are likely to retire soon, so it’s not worth hiring someone in their 50s or 60s. However, Ventrell-Monsees said some older individuals expect to continue working beyond age 65 because they either enjoy working or need to continue to work “to shore up retirement savings.”

One way to objectively raise the question of how long a job applicant plans to work—with applicants of all ages—is to tell candidates that the company is looking for someone who will be with them for ‘x’ number of years and ask where they see themselves in that scenario, Ventrell-Monsees advised.

Cost of Ageism

There’s a high cost to ageism, Ventrell-Monsees said, that includes a loss to the economy when older workers are not earning, spending and paying taxes. The cost can hit home for organizations, too, when courts find that employers have discriminated against older employees.

She pointed to a $26 million verdict in a California case involving a man who was hired at age 55 and had solid performance ratings. When the company was bought by another company, the environment changed. He became the butt of jokes at staff meetings and the target of ageist names, was subjected to false accusations and increasing levels of harassment, and was suspended for “stealing” a 68-cent bell pepper. A receptionist testified that she refused an order from management to provide a false statement about the worker’s conduct.

Despite all this, the employee resisted pressure from a manager to retire. The court awarded the worker $3.2 million in compensatory damages and $22.8 million in punitive damages.

In another case filed March 2014, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) v. PMT Corp., the company was charged with discriminatory hiring and retaliation practices. It hired 70 people from 2007-10, and not one woman or any applicant over age 40 was among those hired. The allegations include retaliation against the HR director who brought PMT’s practices to the EEOC’s attention. The company also is charged with screening out men and women with college graduation dates of 10 years ago or more. A decision has not yet been reached.

Technology Industry

Age discrimination is especially apparent in the technology industry, Ventrell-Monsees said, noting that 70 percent of IT staff surveyed by the Information Week website said they have witnessed or experienced age discrimination.

She pointed to ServiceNow, an IT services company that in 2014 had an ad on its careers webpage that read, “We want people who have their best work ahead of them, not behind them.” Venrell-Monsees also recalled a quote by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg—“Young people are just smarter”— to a Stanford University audience in 2007.

“That’s a sentiment shared by many tech companies ... not exactly a welcoming atmosphere,” she said.

Many online job applications require a date-of-birth field to be completed before an applicant can proceed. While a request for age on an employment application is not a per se violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the EEOC will closely scrutinize such requests, Venrell-Monsees said.

She cautioned employers against job ads seeking “digital natives,” as such wording is presumed to be targeting younger workers because of a belief they are more comfortable with technology, even though, she noted, older people use Facebook and Twitter.

The performance of older workers “can actually improve with age,” Ventrell-Monsees said.

She noted that Baby Boomers are “smashing every norm they touch and we’re seeing that in the workplace as well—they’re healthier than previous generations, and living and working longer and embracing the concept that age is relative. They’ve changed norms in the workplace.”

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor at HR News.

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