Main image of article Age Discrimination in Hiring—a Hidden Problem

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), nearly half of those who've been out of a job for six months or more are over 50. It is an undeniable truth that it's much harder to find a job when you’re over a certain age, but it’s also hard to prove. 

When you’re on a job search, it feels like you’re putting hundreds of résumés out there, and they’re going into a black hole. When you don’t get a response from a company, you have no insight into who did get called for an interview, or why; as such, it’s hard to prove that age was any kind of factor.

Similarly, sometimes the employers themselves don’t even see older candidates because they’re being screened out by recruiters and employment agencies. This can be dangerous—ultimately, it’s the company that bears the legal risk for age discrimination in hiring.

What Recruiters Say About Age

One recruiter with whom I spoke, Elizabeth Zea of JUEL, says that professional longevity can sometimes be held against a candidate, but there are creative ways on a résumé to ensure experience doesn’t get in the way of getting a first meeting: “I do see résumés on which college graduation dates are not included, nor the early employment years of a career. This can be effective if a candidate wants the focus to be on their most recent professional experience rather than their tenure in the market.” 

Elizabeth doesn’t think employers are necessarily overtly ageist: “No client has ever told me, ‘I only want to interview young people,’ but they will say they want a ‘rising star’ or ‘someone whose career is ascending.’”  

I asked Elizabeth if it’s a money or budget issue, and she acknowledges it often is. “There are definitely age-50+ candidates willing to take less money, and they are at a point in their careers where they can do that; but we need to help them come up with confident and powerful ways to express that, because too often, ‘I can make less’ translates into ‘I’m desperate’ and no one wants to hire desperate.”

Perhaps part of the #ImNotDone mission needs to include coming up with new language and new ways to talk about more options for experienced job candidates.  

A hiring manager for a large sales company clued me in on some other potentially ageist behavior that he has seen when he brings older candidates in for interviews. “The feedback I often get is something like, ‘So and so is great, has tons of relevant experience, but I just don’t think they are a cultural fit.’” What does that mean, exactly? Does that mean that if in your company most people don’t have families to go home to, the prospective employee who has to catch the 5:04 to get home before the daycare closes will not be a good cultural fit?  

As an employer, preventing age discrimination at the hiring stage is key. Make sure that you are doing diversity and inclusion training that includes respecting a multi-generational workforce, working proactively to prevent discrimination and harassment, and working on things like unconscious bias.

As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If you are ever faced with an age discrimination lawsuit as an employer, your lawyer will be able to point to these steps as evidence that you view diversity and inclusion in the broadest way possible and are taking steps to address it proactively.

The Elephant in the Room

It’s a fact that older workers tend to cost companies more. Especially older workers who have had a successful career because, as they've advanced, they’ve been financially rewarded. At a certain point, the cost-benefit analysis may no longer work out in favor of the worker. But that's not a reason to lose that worker. It’s an opportunity to open the door to a discussion—a discussion that just might lead to a win/win situation.

The vast majority of older, highly-compensated workers with whom I’ve spoken are open to a conversation about continuing to work for potentially less money, as long as they get to be a part of that conversation. This likely will surprise you so I am going to repeat it—your senior, highly-compensated employees are open to talking about compensation. So yes, compensation level might be the elephant in the room, but you can solve it if you choose to. As an employer, you have to try to keep these high-value senior people around as long as possible. It's the right thing to do, it's respectful, it's a way of being gracious to them for a long career.

Yes, you are running a business, and every employee regardless of her age has to prove her value. But just because an employee is expensive doesn't mean you shouldn't ask, Am I using her in the right way? Would she be open to a different form of compensation? Should we have a five-year off-ramp for her so that she can get her financial house in order?

Many companies offer a buyout of sorts, an early retirement, which is usually offered to workers who have a combination of age and years of experience. On the face of it, this seems like a win-win for everyone. And in the short term, maybe it is. The employer sees some short-term savings by losing the people with the most generous compensation, and the employee gets some financial incentive to leave her job. But how the buyout is structured and positioned to employees says a lot. It may be a “voluntary” buyout, but if the alternative to not taking it is a demotion, or a message that you are now taking your chances with an upcoming reduction in force (read: we’re kicking you out, one way or another), if the employer is only offering this to workers in their 50s and 60s, it’s going to feel like age discrimination, and it very well might be.

Over the course of my career, I have seen this happen more than a dozen times. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it backfires. One such company had promised Wall Street a huge cost reduction over a period of many years. After rounds of layoffs, the company still had a long way to go to achieve the salary synergy they had promised, so they opted to offer voluntary packages. People felt like it was a bird in the hand they should take to avoid the possibility of a layoff in the not-too-distant future. While they offered packages broadly, the only people who could realistically afford to take it were those aged 50+. Many called it age discrimination—but did so on their way out the door. In the end, the company lost considerable institutional knowledge, but even more good will, because people felt that they were just pushing out everybody that had a long history with the company.

Smart companies who are fearful of litigation may simply offer a package to everybody. The problem with this approach is you have a bunch of Millennials who will happily take the money, go travel the world, and then come back and get another job!

So, when I talk about the long run, I’m suggesting that a business leader consider not just the dollars and cents saved by losing your older employees today, but also the other implications of mass restructurings, especially if they disproportionately affect a certain group of people.

We also have to consider that the standard narrative that older workers cost more may not even be as true as it once was. When I was coming up in the business world, you just expected that you would get a five- to seven-percent raise every year to account for increases in the cost of living. When you can start making six figures, your salary begins to jump exponentially under that model, and you can become very expensive. Now, though, progressive companies are moving away from a tenure-based compensation model toward a largely incentive-based one. This means that the salaries they pay their workers are based primarily on both the employees' performance and the company's performance. 

In fact, 90 percent of large companies now use incentive-based compensation, which is a staggering 78 percent increase from 2005. Rather than buy into the idea that older workers necessarily cost more money, perhaps business owners should instead consider changing up their incentive structure a bit.

Another relevant consideration is that nobody really has pensions anymore. Pensions used to be a huge carrying cost for companies, especially because employees are living so much longer. But only 22 percent of companies—which represents a 68 percent decrease—actually offer anything at all that looks like a pension, and most of it is employee-funded. So that's another traditional narrative we can call bullshit on—pensions do not make older workers more expensive.

What about the increased healthcare costs to companies as a result of carrying older workers on their books? It’s true that healthcare generally costs more for older workers, but the difference is not huge. Also, and perhaps surprisingly, recent data indicates that healthcare costs for people between ages 50 and 64 increased at a rate of only 4 to 6 percent, as compared to an increase of 7 to 8 percent for those employees in the 25-to-49 age bracket. My guess is that a lot of that has to do with the fact that older workers have grown kids who are out the house, so they are no longer, for example, paying for their braces. To say that your healthcare costs are necessarily going to go up if you have older workers is an additional fallacy that needs to be considered when assessing the real costs of employing older workers.

Age discrimination is a multifaceted issue, but knowing the truth about ageist myths and being aware of the problems can get companies on the path to treating their employees right. 

Adapted from I’m Not Done: It’s Time to Talk About Ageism in The Workplace.

Over the course of a four-decade career, Patti Temple Rocks has held senior leadership positions in three different sectors of the communications industry: PR, advertising, and on the corporate client side. She is an inspirational leader, innovative thinker, problem-solver, growth driver, brand steward, and agent of change.