Ageism in Recruitment and How to Avoid it

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) play a significant part in shaping today’s hiring landscape. Companies are making strides to welcome diversity through more accessible hiring practices—whether that means using inclusive language in job postings or recruiting from traditionally underrepresented areas. And while DE&I is opening doors for many historically marginalized groups, many companies still fall short of wholly embracing it.

There’s no better example than ageism in recruitment. It’s easy to forget that seniors belong to their own marginalized group. In the same way systemic inequity has worked against racial groups or those in LGBTQIA+ groups, organizations have historically held a bias against hiring employees above a certain age group. In fact, many companies still have programs designed to fast-track ageing employees into retirement.

Seniors—those aged 55 and older—face an uphill battle when it comes to finding work in today’s labor market. It’s becoming a big problem, especially as more seniors choose to (or are forced to) find work.

What is Ageism?

Ageism is a form of discrimination, although one that tends to be less overt than other types of discrimination. Specifically, it’s the avoidance of hiring senior workers for positions that they may be qualified to occupy, usually in favor of younger workers who may not be as qualified. It’s common across many industries, yet doesn’t always get the attention that racial or sexist discrimination demands because it’s less overt.

For example, a tech company may overlook a 56-year-old product manager when interviewing for the position purely on the grounds of age. This may happen consciously or unconsciously, but either way, it’s ageist. Not judging the capabilities of a person on their merit, skills or experience and solely rejecting for their age isn’t representative of a DE&I mentality.

Misconceptions About Ageing Workers

Why do so many companies exhibit ageism in recruitment? Whether conscious or unconscious, this bias stems from a variety of common misconceptions about seniors, including:

  • They’re not technologically savvy or may be technophobic
  • They don’t have the cognitive or physical capacity to perform
  • They’re a workplace liability or prone to injury on the job
  • They possess impairments or disabilities due to age
  • They don’t have the skills or abilities needed for modern work

Ascribing to any of these assumptions is a dangerous line of thought—it turns senior workers into second-class citizens without given them an opportunity to prove themselves from an equal footing. Assuming a negative view of seniors perpetuates the idea that younger people are automatically more qualified or somehow better-equipped to succeed when this simply isn’t the case.

Seniors deserve the merit of an equal playing field—as do all traditionally marginalized groups.

How to Eliminate Ageist Recruitment Practices

While most companies don’t practice ageism in recruitment, it can nonetheless creep into even the most DE&I-conscious hiring processes. Here’s how to spot it and steps recruiters and hiring managers can take to ensure an unbiased playing field for seniors (and all groups):

  • Anonymize applications. Remove names, birthdates and any other identifying information from applications. Instead, attach a number to the résumé and evaluate each on the merit of the information provided. This ensures the most qualified candidates make it through screening, regardless of age.
  • Diversify hiring committees. Whether hiring through in-house channels or working with a recruitment partner, make sure that hiring panels are paragons of equitability. This means including interview panelists of all ages, races, genders, identities and other characteristics. Diversity begets authenticity, and it’s a cornerstone of DE&I.
  • Exclude ageist verbiage. When posting job positions or delivering criteria to recruiters, avoid verbiage that suggests that the ideal candidate is young. For instance, avoid phrases like, “we’re seeking a youthful, energetic addition to our sales team.” Instead, pitch the position from a skills-based perspective and address culture fit during interviews.
  • Evaluate expectations. Eliminating ageism is recruitment prompts an opportunity to look at your operational processes to determine where ageism may be implied. That starts by understanding the needs of seniors in the workforce, and it can help to listen to concerns and expectations from senior candidates you interview.

Ageism—like racism, sexism and all other discriminatory -isms—has no place in the workplace. Eliminating it starts by addressing ageism in recruitment.

There’s Untapped Potential in Seniors

Part of the reason ageism persists even in an age of DE&I is because stereotypes about age persist. The blissfully unaware senior who smiles because he’s not sure what’s going on around him. The grouchy old woman who lacks people skills and is hard of hearing. The technophobic senior who needs parental safeguards on their electronics. It’s these images that conjure up the idea that seniors represent an age group not worth employing.

But let’s consider some lesser-observed viewpoints. The marketing professional who evolved in tandem with the industry for 40 years. The HR specialist who’s been around long enough to know the ins and outs of benefits administration. The engineer who’s forgotten more than your grad school recruit has ever learned. This is a group of people with incredible potential, built largely on firsthand experience—experience that’s often invaluable.

Realizing the untapped potential of seniors comes down to abandoning ageist misconceptions. Identifying and eliminating ageism in recruitment will give your organization more exposure to this group—and all the potential that comes with them.

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