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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

9 Tips to Prevent Ageism in Hiring (Even if You Didn’t Realize it Was There)

people of various ages filling out job applications
Terry Vine/Getty Images

Take a look around your office for a moment and think back to all the new employees you can remember joining the company since you started. You might’ve already become attuned to how many women or people of color are being hired (or perhaps, not being hired).

But what about these newbies’ ages? Is almost every single one of them a recent college graduate? Are even the more senior and management roles being filled by shooting stars in their 20s, 30s, and mayyyybe 40s? Would you literally have to go two floors up to find someone over 50 and exit the building to find someone over 60?

“By avoiding older workers, employers are missing out on workers with the most experience, who are likely to stay with companies longer than their younger counterparts, who usually understand the ethic of work and the cultures of workplaces, and who are likely to reward your faith with strong motivation to excel,” says Ruth Finkelstein, Executive Director of the Brookdale Center for Healthy Aging and a professor of urban public health at Hunter College. With age as with other characteristics, she adds, “the research is clear: diverse work teams are more successful as they incorporate multiple perspectives.”

By avoiding older workers, employers are missing out on workers with the most experience, who are likely to stay with companies longer than their younger counterparts, who usually understand the ethic of work and the cultures of workplaces, and who are likely to reward your faith with strong motivation to excel.

Ruth Finkelstein

While federal and state laws prohibit age discrimination in hiring and other aspects of employment, ageism is incredibly common. A 2018 AARP survey of 3,900 workers ages 45 and above found that 45% of older workers cite age discrimination as a major reason they believe they wouldn’t be able to find another job quickly (and an additional 31% said it was a minor reason), and 16% reported that they’d personally been passed up for a new job they applied for because of their age. And several studies (like this one and this one) have proven, empirically, that age discrimination is a problem in hiring.

But “formal complaints are rarely filed, and even more rarely proven,” Finkelstein explains. And a 2015 survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that only 8% of organizations addressed or planned to address age as a dimension of diversity and inclusion in their talent strategies.

Everyone knows it happens every day but hardly anyone does anything about it.

Cathy Ventrell-Monsees

“Everyone knows it happens every day but hardly anyone does anything about it,” says Cathy Ventrell-Monsees, senior advisor to the chair of the EEOC and co-author of Age Discrimination Litigation. “Our society is pretty ageist,” she explains. “People have to recognize that and work to break down the assumptions they may have and may not know they have.”

If you’re involved in hiring—whether you’re a recruiter who spends all your days focused on finding new talent, a manager searching for a fantastic new addition to your team, or a co-worker taking part in the interview process—and want to make an effort not only to avoid illegal age discrimination, but also to push for and benefit from age diversity, here are several ways you can go about it.

1. Make Sure Any Plan for Diverse Hiring Includes Age

As the PwC study found, very few companies include age as a component of their talent diversity and inclusion strategies. But “if you don’t have age on your radar screen, how do you address the issues?” says Patricia Barnes, an expert on employment discrimination and author of Overcoming Age Discrimination in Employment: An Essential Guide for Workers, Advocates, and Employers. “Maybe the first thing a company should do is do an evaluation. What are we doing with respect to older workers?” she says. “If we’re doing nothing we’re making the problem worse.”

So if you have a formal or informal plan around diversity in hiring, make sure age is part of it. Because it’ll do good not only for older workers who will have more opportunities, but also for the companies and colleagues they join. In a 2018 report released on the 50th anniversary of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, for example, the EEOC pointed to research that’s shown that age diversity leads to better organizational performance, higher productivity for everyone involved, and lower turnover.

Someone once said those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Older workers bring the equivalent of wisdom capital to a job.

Patricia Barnes

Older workers bring industry and business knowledge and a wealth of experience that helps them strategize and solve problems, Barnes says. And they “can mentor younger workers, if not technically, then in valuable interpersonal skills and teamwork,” she adds. “Someone once said those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Older workers bring the equivalent of wisdom capital to a job.”

2. Pay Attention to Your Job Descriptions

You may already know that certain language used in job descriptions can deter women from applying—research points to words like “competitive,” “dominant,” and even “outspoken,” and we’ve also heard too much about “ninjas” and “rock stars.”

You’ll also want to think about whether the words you’re using will deter older workers. If you’re advertising for “digital natives,” that’s language that explicitly leaves people out just because they happened to be born at a certain time. If what you’re after is proficiency in certain digital skills or a proven track record adopting and mastering new tools, talk about that instead.

But that’s not the only kind of language that might turn off potential older applicants, according to Finkelstein. “When it’s all full of ‘energetic, fresh ideas, bold, etc.,’ it’s not that experienced workers aren’t those things, it’s that older workers read an ad like that and say, ‘Oh they want to hire kids,’” she explains. When, on the other hand, an ad “emphasizes mentoring, training, leading, and autonomy, then older workers read that and think their applications might be considered.”

When it’s all full of ‘energetic, fresh ideas, bold, etc.,’ it’s not that experienced workers aren’t those things, it’s that older workers read an ad like that and say, ‘Oh they want to hire kids.’

Ruth Finkelstein

Another easy fix: Avoid setting a cap when you lay out how much experience you expect candidates to have. Sure, you can indicate a minimum, if you believe someone needs at least that much time in a similar role to excel in the position. But an upper limit does more to turn away older applicants than filter for those who could do the job well.

If you’re trying to use that number as a roundabout way to set salary expectations, consider your other options. Laurie McCann, a senior attorney with the AARP Foundation, suggests being direct and simply posting the salary instead. “Then the individual worker decides before applying whether or not that salary is acceptable to them.” If that’s not an option at your company, then make sure you “clearly describe the skills required and the level of responsibility the position wields—in other words describe the position as clearly and accurately as possible so that there is no miscommunication about the type of job you are hiring for.”

As Barnes notes, “if an industry is shrinking or the economy is down, the hiring pool will likely include some highly qualified people. Workers have many reasons for accepting lower salaries (i.e., to keep working in the profession they love or because they want to work in a particular locale or whatever). That’s the reality today.”

3. Don’t Ask for Birth Dates or Graduation Years (and Don’t Limit Your Search to Recent Grads)

Here’s another easy one: Don’t ask applicants for their dates of birth or college graduation years (which is just another indicator of age). “It’s amazing how frequently we see that,” says Ventrell-Monsees of the EEOC.

Often those fields don’t just appear on the online application, they’re also required, which means that if you don’t complete them, you can’t hit submit. Sometimes, Ventrell-Monsees says, the college graduation question is even accompanied by a dropdown menu that doesn’t list options before a certain year, as though it would be inconceivable for an applicant to be older than that. And if it’s a required field, a candidate’s only option is to select an incorrect year or walk away entirely.

Similarly, avoid limiting your pool of qualified applicants by marking certain jobs for recent grads or, as a recruiter, filtering potential candidates by graduation year in your LinkedIn search. It’s the same idea as putting an arbitrary cap on years of experience—and by proxy, age—rather than focusing on skills a candidate would actually need to succeed in the role.

4. Target Your Outreach to Workers of All Ages

College and graduate school career fairs may seem like some of the most obvious ways to recruit new employees, but make sure those aren’t the only places you’re looking. These events may be convenient suppliers of high volumes of candidates, but for obvious reasons, most of them will fall into a pretty narrow age group.

Similarly, if your company is buying job ads on platforms like Facebook and Google, is it limiting who sees those ads to particular age groups? An investigation by ProPublica found several instances of large companies placing recruitment ads that would be shown only to particular age groups.

You can think about proactive recruitment things as well as things that prevent discrimination.

Ruth Finkelstein

Finkelstein also urges employers who are serious about age diversity to specifically seek out older candidates. “You can think about proactive recruitment things as well as things that prevent discrimination,” she says.

“When I’m posting for a position and I explicitly am looking for a deep wide range of expertise, I go to the HR people and say, ‘Someone in their 60s, someone in their 70s, would be good in this job,’” Finkelstein says, almost as permission as well as a reminder and encouragement to consider candidates who are older.

She also recommends turning to alumni networks and, especially at larger companies, to retiree networks. “Your retirees are an excellent source of recruits,” she says. “They know other people in their peer group or one just below them who are looking for work,” she adds, and because they’re familiar with the company, “they’re good judges of who would be a good fit.”

5. Show Job Searchers Workers of Various Ages in Marketing Materials and Hiring Committees

One day when Ventrell-Monsees was watching sports on television, she noticed an ad about job recruiting featuring a man with gray in his beard, and then a woman in her 50s. “Damn, they never show women in their 50s!” she thought.

If companies are looking for workers of all ages, she says, they should include workers of all ages on their websites, in their recruitment materials, and in any other marketing efforts. “It doesn’t have to be pictures of actual folks in [the] company; if that’s what you’re striving for then include those pictures,” she urges. Because when job seekers see people like them represented in those materials, it can send a signal that the company truly wants them to apply.

The same goes for the hiring committee. “Research shows that hiring decision makers tend to hire people like themselves,” Ventrell-Monsees says. So “an age diverse hiring panel can make a huge difference.”

Finkelstein echoes her point. “If you are serious about being willing to hire an older worker, and they never see an older face in the whole process they go through, you’re not delivering that message very effectively,” she says. “I’m 64 so I have lots of friends who are in the exact position you’re thinking about. They talk about when they go on a job interview and they know they’ll never hear from these people again, and one of the things they talk about is the kids who interview them.”

6. Focus on Core Skills and Qualifications, Not Superficial Ones

At every step of the process, making sure you’re focusing on the skills and qualifications required for the role will help prevent ageism (even if you didn’t realize it was there). That means when you’re writing the job description, when you’re doing the initial screening of applications, when you’re interviewing, and when you ultimately offer someone the job.

“If a person meets those, they should be a viable candidate,” says McCann. Period. And having a clear list of skills and qualifications that everyone involved in hiring can come back to will help prevent bias of any kind from influencing the decisions.

If a person meets those [skills and qualifications requirements], they should be a viable candidate

Laurie McCann

At the same time, Finkelstein warns against getting too hung up on familiarity with particular tools or platforms: “I think sometimes that set of questions is used as a weapon.”

In other words, “if you say, ‘What do you know about XYZ latest software?’ you’re sort of demanding that somebody know the specific exact thing that you’re using instead of believing that if they have a range of knowledge about that kind of system they can probably master yours too,” she explains. “If this guy can build relationships, take a list of contacts, turn them into leads, sell to them, increase their order over time and the company’s market share, then that’s probably a skill set that means this person is a good salesperson even if they haven’t done it on your platform.”

Make an effort to focus on the fundamental skills rather than the superficial ones. And, Finkelstein adds, skip the remarks about how much things have changed. Just because a candidate used a rolodex and paper files when they started out, doesn’t mean they won’t be equally as successful using software today.

7. Be Careful Not to Use “Culture Fit” as an Excuse

At The Muse, the idea of fit is central. But fit is about finding matches between employees and companies based on attributes like communication and decision-making styles as well as details such as the size of a company and its mission. It’s categorically not about creating environments where everyone is the same (in terms of gender, race, age, experience, ideas, etc.)

So while questions of culture fit may be valid, make sure you’re not assuming older candidates wouldn’t fit in. When you say, “it’s hip, it’s a tech environment, it’s a fast-paced type environment, do you think you could keep up?” Ventrell-Monsees explains, “that might be a perfectly legitimate question to ask all candidates, but if you only ask older candidates, there’s a built-in assumption that they’re slower. Typically [you] have no basis for making that assumption.”

Besides, if you think the culture at your company would make an older worker uncomfortable, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hire them, but rather that you should take steps to make the environment more inclusive.

8. Don’t Make Assumptions About Someone Who’s “Overqualified” or “Likely to Retire Soon”

A good rule of thumb in general is to avoid making assumptions. That’s true when you’re a manager who shouldn’t assume a woman wouldn’t want a promotion because she has young children at home, and it’s true when you’re a hiring manager who shouldn’t assume someone who has more than the minimum amount of experience isn’t genuinely interested in the job.

“There are all sorts of reasons that someone with more experience than necessary might be looking to step down from management,” McCann says. They might “miss the substantive work they were trained to do.” For example, if they were trained as an engineer or designer and want to go back to doing those things rather than overseeing teams of people doing those things.

There are plenty of legitimate ways to get at an candidate’s reasons and motivations, rather than dismissing their applications out of hand. Tell them what the position entails. Ask them why they’re excited, and how they would stay interested and engaged.

“If you get a feeling from that person’s answer that this isn’t exactly their dream job and they’re not excited about it,” McCann says, “that’s a plausible reason” not to move them forward in the process. But don’t assume that because someone is more than qualified, they’ll get bored or be taking this role with plans to jump ship as soon as something better comes along.

“Too often it’s the stereotype that the person whose qualifications exceed the minimum is always going to leave and yet we don’t seem to think the same of less-qualified individuals who are constantly on the lookout for the next and better position,” McCann says.

Research actually shows that the younger workers job hop much more rapidly and frequently than an older worker will.

Cathy Ventrell-Monsees

In fact, Ventrell-Monsees points out, “research actually shows that the younger workers job hop much more rapidly and frequently than an older worker will.” So if one of your primary concerns is to find someone who will stay in the role or at the company for a certain amount of time, make sure you’re asking younger candidates the same questions as older ones.

As for assuming that an older candidate is surely just about to retire and therefore not worth investing in as a new hire, Ventrell-Monsees, “unless they’ve hit the lottery, that’s probably not going to happen.” Besides, “if you’re going to live until they’re 80 or 90, there’s a lot of work in there!”

9. Don’t Be So Confused About Why They’re Looking for a New Job

Not only should you avoid guessing how close an applicant is to retirement, but you should also try to shake any confusion you have about their desire to change jobs.

“Don’t assume because someone has been in one job for whatever, 20 years, that they wouldn’t be willing and able to adapt to my company,” Ventrell-Monsees says. “There’s sort of an outdated assumption that people get stuck and want to stay stuck,” she adds. But “people come in and out of work and jobs and careers and interests at all different stages in their lives,” and “with job hopping becoming the norm, even older workers in their 40s and 50s are interested in different opportunities.”

In fact, Finkelstein points out, it should make plenty of sense. “People change jobs in their 60s, and they do that to have sort of a capstone experience where they bring everything they’ve learned to bear in a position and give it their everything,” she says. “I can’t really understand why organizations don’t want those people.”