EEOC: Ageism Persists in the Workplace

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek June 29, 2018

Fifty years after the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) was passed, ageism remains too common and accepted, says a new report from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Released June 26, the report examined age discrimination in the U.S. since the ADEA took effect, outlawing employment discrimination against anyone at least 40 years old. Despite the ban, the EEOC received 18,376 charges of age discrimination during fiscal year 2017. 

Charges filed with federal and state enforcement agencies represent a fraction of the likely discrimination that occurs in the workplace. One key reason is that ageism can be difficult to prove, so most discriminatory and harassing conduct goes unreported, according to the EEOC's Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace. 

A study that AARP conducted last year with 3,900 people ages 45 and older who were employed or looking for work found that six out of 10 older workers report seeing or experiencing ageism and 90 percent said it was common.

Victoria A. Lipnic, EEOC acting chair, called ageism "an open secret."

"Like harassment, everyone knows [age discrimination] happens every day to workers in all kinds of jobs, but few speak up," she said in a news release accompanying the report.

"There is still much that needs to be done to strengthen the law, work with employers and dispel myths about older workers," said David Certner, AARP legislative counsel and legal policy director in Washington, D.C.

Tactics to Recruit, Retain Older Workers

Ageism is much like other forms of discrimination, the EEOC noted. Stereotypes about the abilities and qualifications of women, for example, were based "on assumptions about the appropriate roles of women in the workplace and society," the agency pointed out.

Although older workers today are better educated, living longer and staying in the workplace longer than those of previous generations, discrimination and outdated assumptions about them continue, Lipnic pointed out in the report. 

And EEOC data shows the demographics of workers who file ADEA charges have changed dramatically over the years. In 1990, men filed almost twice as many charges as women. But by 2010, the number of women filing age charges had surpassed the number of men filing age charges, a trend that continues today. Additionally, the number of age discrimination charges among racial groups has grown with each decade, as the chart below illustrates. 

The issue affects all industries. The Communications Workers of America in May added Facebook, Ikea and hundreds of other companies to a class-action lawsuit alleging age discrimination. The suit, Bradley v. T-Mobile, claims that the defendants target their job ads on Facebook so that only the social networking site's younger users see them.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Employing Older Workers]

"Companies are undergoing so much digital transformation, and a certain expertise is needed to power those changes," said Nick Cromydas, CEO and co-founder of Hunt Club, a staffing and recruitment firm in Chicago. "That's why we [in recruiting and staffing] think many companies, especially in the tech industry, lean towards hiring candidates who were raised using the technologies they are now being required to use on the job.

"But, these same companies have a tendency to forget the benefits of hiring talent over the age of 45," he noted. Seasoned professionals often have a wealth of connections that can bring new networks a company otherwise would not have access to, and they introduce "a breadth of experience" that benefits the company.

Changing workplace practices can better produce real, sustainable benefits than trying to change attitudes about older workers, the EEOC pointed out in its report.

"Age discrimination remains a significant and costly problem for workers, their families, and our economy," Lipnic wrote in a preamble to the report. "Age-diverse teams and workforces can improve employee engagement, performance, and productivity. Experienced workers have talent that our economy cannot afford to waste."

The EEOC recommended the following strategies to increase age diversity in the workplace:

  • Assess your organization's culture, practices and policies that may reveal outdated   assumptions about older workers. The Center on Aging & Work at Boston College and AARP partnered to develop such an assessment tool.

  • Examine your recruitment practices. Does your website include photos of an age-diverse workforce? Do your job applications ask age-related questions such as date of birth or when a person graduated? Is your interview panel age-diverse? Train recruiters and interviewers to avoid ageist assumptions, such as that a younger worker will work for a lower salary or that an older worker will not remain on the job for long.

  • Include age as part of your diversity and inclusion programs and efforts. PricewaterhouseCoopers' 2015 Annual Global CEO Survey found that while 64 percent of 1,322 CEOS in 77 countries had a diversity and inclusion strategy at their company, only 8 percent included age in those strategies.

  • Offer learning and development to all employees, including career counseling and reverse-age mentoring.

  • Foster a multigenerational culture that recognizes ability regardless of age and rejects age stereotypes, just as it would reject stereotypes of race, disability, national origin, religion or sex.



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