Is the HR and Recruiting Profession Promoting Ageism?

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Aug 27, 2019
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

A fundamental principle of equal rights is the belief that staffing decisions should not be based on non-job relevant factors related to gender, race, age, or disability. Although we have more to do, tremendous strides have been made to decrease bias against women, minorities, and neuro-diverse individuals since the equal rights movement started in the second half of the 20th century.  There is one notable exception to this generally positive trend: ageism.  

How HR and Recruiting Are Creating and Enabling Ageism

Ageism has been increasing in recent years. Specifically, ageism biased against older workers. Ageism toward younger workers also exists, but in a youth-oriented culture like the United States most ageism favors younger employees.

Unlike other forms of diversity which are often discussed at the highest levels of business leadership, ageism is rarely acknowledged as a concern in companies. In many ways, ageism is even a socially accepted form of discrimination. An argument can be made that this is largely a result of activities by the HR and recruiting community. It may seem paradoxical that a community that has led the charge in advocating for gender, racial, and disability equality also engages in behavior that encourages and tolerates ageist stereotypes. 

Nevertheless, here are two examples:

Encouraging candidates to misrepresent their age. Many people would be offended if someone encouraged female candidates to act more masculine or suggested that minority candidates hide their ethnicity. Telling women or minorities to act like white men in order to advance their careers might have been considered “good advice” at some point in the past, but certainly not now. Asking people to misrepresent their true identity is considered both unhealthy and antithetical to the very concept of inclusive, diverse cultures. Yet scores of articles have recently been published by HR and recruiting professionals recommending that older candidates “age proof” their resumes to appear younger. To be clear, I do not fault candidates for doing what it takes to overcome ageist recruiting practices. Nor do I take issue with people helping older candidates compete in an unfair world. What is striking is the seeming social acceptance of a practice that recommends candidates misrepresent their identities to get a job. If we believe in equal rights, then why is the HR and recruiting community not calling this out as a clear symptom that shows how prevalent and problematic ageism has become in staffing?   

Designing recruiting programs built around ageist stereotypes. How would you react if someone told you people born in San Francisco and Seattle tend to be more “digital savvy, purpose-driven, change-oriented, creative problem solvers” than people born in other cities?* Even if you were born in those cities, you probably find this statement to be questionable at best, and condescending and socially divisive at worst. Even if it was partially true, it seems risky to apply sweeping generalizations to such a large and highly diverse population. But people in the HR profession do this constantly when talking about what makes millennials and Gen Y employees different from older workers.

One does not need a PhD in psychology to understand the dangers that come from placing people into broad groups based on demographic categories and labeling them as sharing certain traits that make them different from other groups. Yet a micro-industry of “generational experts” has arisen in HR that encourages making broad generalizations about employees based on age.  This industry plays to people’s natural tendency to apply stereotypes to groups of people as a way to explain their behavior. 

I do not think the people in this industry meant to be ageist. But ageism is an inevitable result of this industry given what we know about implicit biases and how they are formed and maintained.  

Reversing the Influence of Ageism  

History shows the damage done when societies create false beliefs about people based on demographic labels. But research also shows that false and often implicit beliefs can be changed. A good example is progress on eliminating the myth that women are worse at mathematics than men. It is time to begin similar efforts to combat ageist beliefs. 

The following are a few suggestions toward this goal:

  • Stop using trendy sounding labels to describe age. There are valid reasons to incorporate age into recruiting strategies. Similar to efforts to hire women or minorities, there are times when companies want to increase age diversity.  The problem is when companies create recruiting programs using poorly defined euphemisms for age that promote age-based stereotyping (millennials, digital natives, etc.). The reason companies should not use labels like “baby boomers” to refer to 60-year-old employees is the same reason companies should not use labels like “the fairer sex” to refer to female employees. It replaces a well-defined, neutrally objective description with an ill-defined label loaded with cultural stereotypes. If companies want to hire younger employees, then they should say we want to hire younger employees. This may drive difficult conversations about what specific age defines someone as young or the importance of age-diversity overall. But it is better to have this dialogue then hide behind vague terms and pretend candidate age does not matter when it clearly does.
  • Emphasize how similar people are across generations. The majority of differences found between candidates from different generations can be explained by things related to career experience, personal life stage, and labor-market conditions. When these things are controlled for, candidates and employees are actually very similar across generations.   Simply put, humans do not evolve that fast when it comes to our fundamental abilities and psychological needs. People are people, regardless of the year when they were born. Talk about the core similarities the unite generations and downplay trivial surface level differences that divide them.
  • Address age stereotypes. A lot of research has looked at the impact of age on job performance. The relationship between age and job performance is complex and moderated by a range of variables. In cases where there are reliable relationships, age tends to be positively associated with performance. What clearly matters far more than actual age are things commonly associated with age such as career experience, family status, financial security, or physical ability.  In sum, just knowing someone’s age by itself tells you very little about their job potential. It is a bit like the relationship between gender and parenting. Women are more likely than men to take time off to raise children. But it is clearly wrong to make assumptions about turnover risk based on employee gender. Apply this same perspective when discussing generational differences. A candidate’s generation is defined solely by their age, and their age does not really matter. What matters are the experiences, skills and interests of each individual candidate.
  • Focus on candidate attitudes instead of age. There are some differences in average attitudes found among younger candidates compared to older candidates. These differences are quantitative in nature, not qualitative. Many older people have the same attitudes about work as younger people even if certain attitudes are more prevalent in the younger population. For example, younger candidates on average may care more about corporate social responsibility than older candidates. This does not mean that all younger candidates care about social responsibility or that no older candidates care about it. In reality, many older people care much more about social responsibility than many younger people. Saying something like “millennials care about social responsibility” implies that other generations may not care about it. It is more accurate to say “social responsibility is becoming more important in general, particularly among younger candidates.” If you want to hire younger employees, focus recruiting around attitudes that are more prevalent among the youth. But select candidates based on attitude and qualifications, not age. There is a big difference between a recruiting strategy focused on hiring people with a passion for social responsibility vs building a strategy focused on hiring millennial and Gen Y candidates.
  • Point out faulty age-based hiring beliefs.  Companies sometimes focus on age because they think it will lead to another outcome. For example, it may be assumed that younger employees are likely to have a longer tenure with the company or will work for a lower salary. Neither is necessarily true. The average tenure in professional jobs in the U.S. is about four years. Four years is four years, regardless of whether an employee is age 21 to 25 or 60 to 64. Older workers are also often in a financial position that enables them to work for less money than younger employees. In sum, hire people based on what you actually want, which is probably not their age.

Ageism is a form of discrimination that almost everyone will encounter at some point in their career. And it is not limited to people we necessarily think of as old. Ageism can affect people in their late thirties and forties who are not even halfway through their career. The tragedy of the current wave of ageism is that it is something we largely brought upon ourselves with our obsession on categorizing people using generational labels. The good news is many of us will be working into our seventies and beyond, so we have a lot of motivation and time to address it.  

We can start by ending the discussion about generations and how they are different from one another. Avoid using inherently ageist terms like millennial, Gen X, and baby boomer, and instead use actual ages to describe people whether they are in their teens, twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, or beyond. Instead of generational differences, focus the conversation around what unites us regardless of age. And remember that the year we were born rarely matters. What matters is what we have done during the years since we were born and what we strive to do with the years we have left.


*I strongly doubt this is true, as I simply made it up for illustration. But one could make an argument that people born in these cities have been exposed to environmental and economic conditions that might increase their likelihood of having these traits. It is easy to make such theories sound plausible even if they are false, which I contend characterizes a lot of the stuff written about generational differences. The words used in the example to describe people from the two cities are words that have been used to describe “millennial” employees.

If you’re interested in this topic, check out this panel this fall in October.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.
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