Often, when people hear “diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training,” topics like racial bias and gender equity typically come to mind. However, age is often the forgotten protected class when it comes to creating an inclusive workplace, says Andrew Rawson, chief learning officer at Traliant. But ageism manifests itself in “many of the same ways other forms of discrimination do,” Rawson says, impacting everything from hiring and promotions to company culture.
In fact, according to a recent American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) workplace survey, nearly two out of three workers aged 45 and older have seen or experienced age discrimination on the job. Among the 61% of respondents who reported age bias, 91% said they believe age discrimination in the workplace is common. It’s not only older workers who are facing ageism on the job, either: A recent Glassdoor survey found that 18- to 34-year-olds are even more likely to have experienced ageism in the workplace than workers over 55.
Fortunately, training and development can help stop ageism to ensure an equitable workplace for all.
Ageism in the Modern Workplace
Today’s organizations are more multigenerational than ever, with baby boomers, Generation X, millennials and Generation Z working together. Peter Kaldes, chief executive officer of the American Society on Aging, says, “It is shocking how frequently intergenerational differences come up in [employees’] day-to-day job.” Training can help organizations “recognize generational differences that often exist in the workplace” and harness them for innovative performance.
Training should focus on the two areas where ageism is most prevalent:
1. The Hiring Process
Ageism is “most insidious” in the hiring process, because that’s where “it’s most opaque,” Rawson says. There’s no way candidates can know if they didn’t get a job because of their age. There are numerous biases that lead to ageism in the hiring process. Firstly, there’s a “toxic assumption” that people in their sixties will soon be retiring, says John Tarnoff, a career transition coach, speaker and author of “Boomer Reinvention: How to Create Your Dream Career Over 50.” This assumption is false; United Income, a financial planning and investment management company owned by Capital One, found that over 20% of adults over age 65 are either working or looking for work, compared with 10% in 1985.
Another reason older candidates are often overlooked in the hiring process is because they’re “deemed to be too expensive” based on their market value and because their health care costs may be high, Kaldes says. This assumption, too, is a stereotype. In fact, Kaldes says many older workers may want a more flexible schedule and, therefore, may be willing to work fewer hours. Additionally, some older workers may not need health care since they have Medicare coverage, he says.
Younger candidates can also experience ageism in the hiring process. While older workers typically have more experience than people who are fresh out of school, it’s important to remember that “everyone works at different levels,” Kaldes says. Competence is “more about ability, preparation and opportunity than it is about age.”
Overcoming ageism in the hiring process “has to come from the top,” Kaldes says. “Hiring managers have to feel that they are supported if they offer strong candidates who are older than [leaders] were imagining.” Training can help hiring managers overcome any preexisting stereotypes they may have against older ― and younger ― employees so that all candidates have a fair chance at gaining employment. Then, the company can reap the benefits of a multigenerational workforce.
2. On-the-job Bias
Ageism can also translate to on-the-job bias. For example, younger workers are less likely to be trusted with important tasks and are often the subject of age-based stereotypes, writes Emma Waldman, associate editor at Harvard Business Review. When older workers doubt the competency of their younger colleagues, they are not helping the next generations develop transferable skills. They are, rather, “building barriers of mistrust,” Waldman says.
While older workers may deem their younger colleagues unable to handle serious tasks and responsibilities, younger employees often hold biases about older workers’ ability to use technology. This stereotype often stems from employees’ personal lives, Rawson says. Employees may watch their parents or older relatives struggle to use various technologies and, as a result, assume that all older people face the same challenges. In reality, however, many people in senior management roles are comfortable using workplace messaging tools, apps and other types of technology, Rawson says. The idea that older people are “not as technical” is a myth.
On-the-job bias can quickly disrupt both productivity and innovation. When employees can overcome age bias and work together toward a common goal, they will be more likely exceed performance expectations through their collective skills and expertise.
How Training Can Help
When it comes to overcoming age bias, as with any unconscious bias, the first step is becoming aware of it, which is the “ultimate irony,” Rawson says. After all, how can you overcome something you’re not aware of? To begin disrupting ageism in the workplace, training professionals should start by bringing age bias to light. It is only then we can “consciously do something about it.”
One of the most effective ways to uncover and dismantle unconscious bias is through stories, Rawson says. DEI initiatives that rely solely on facts and figures are more likely to be forgotten. But people remember stories. Whether through role-playing or virtual reality (VR), training that draws from the power of storytelling is more likely help learners recognize and overcome age bias and stereotypes.
Proceed With Caution
There is a “wonderful synergy” that happens when you couple experienced professionals with young people, Tarnoff says. Often, it leads to creativity and new ideas. However, it can quickly go awry if learning leaders don’t consider how anti-ageist policies and initiatives can impact other inclusion efforts. As most companies’ older population is made up of white males, attempts to promote older workers can thwart efforts to promote and support people of color. Here is where, Rawson says, “it gets a little thorny.” To ensure fairness, DEI training initiatives should address all protected classes.
Managers should be candid about their efforts to combat ageism while supporting employees from other minority groups. Statements like, “We want to make sure we’re not discriminating against our older workers, but I recognize [many of] our older workers are from groups that tend to be the ones that were favored in the past,” show that you understand creating an inclusive workplace for all “is a balancing act,” Rawson says.
Like all DEI initiatives, disrupting ageism in the workplace is “intentional, ongoing and deep work,” Kaldes says. By targeting ageism in the hiring process and in on-the-job bias, leveraging the power of stories, and delivering training on all protected classes, learning leaders can help combat ageism in the workplace for a more inclusive, equitable future of work.