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Ageism is thriving, so what are companies doing about it?

From not even getting past the first interview to being segregated into niche roles, older workers are still facing discrimination. Some companies are trying to fix that.

Ageism is thriving, so what are companies doing about it?
[Photo: Dietmar Becker/Unsplash]

“It’s always difficult to identify reasons why you do or don’t get a job,” says Florence Navarro, the chief empowerment officer of Kichocheo who works with executive teams to attract talented teams. It could be that you’re not as qualified as other candidates, or your enthusiasm didn’t translate during the interview, the employer decided to promote from within, or, says Navarro, you just weren’t a fit for the culture for a number of reasons.

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Here’s where it gets tricky. While Navarro can see this from the perspective of a professional recruiter, she confesses that she’s wondered if the latter wasn’t the case when she herself was job hunting. Navarro, who is over 45, admits that it’s been challenging to find a job in the last six to seven years.

One of the jobs Navarro applied for–that she felt uniquely qualified for, given her extensive experience with the UN–she lost out to another younger, male candidate. “I had a series of interviews, and an assessment, I had a good interaction with the team,” she recalls, noting again that it’s hard to know what the reasoning was behind the final decision, but she suspects it was because of her age.

In the social impact sector, she explains, there are a lot of young people who are willing to accept lower levels of pay which ups the competition. And in organizations with very flat structures it can be tough for people at her level to land positions. “It is true for several people I have spoken with,” she says, once they passed the middle and higher level of their careers.

Nearly two out of three workers over the age of 45 have seen or experienced age discrimination on the job, according to the results of a wide-ranging AARP survey done in 2018. Among the 61% of respondents who reported age bias, the vast majority (91%) believe this discrimination is common. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) had similar findings. Their most recent study of age discrimination in hiring analyzed over 40,000 applications for over 13,000 jobs in 12 cities across 11 states in 2015. Age discrimination happens for both men and women, particularly between 64 to 66 years old. They were more frequently denied job interviews than middle-age applicants age 49 to 51. Women in both those age groups were subjected to more age discrimination than older men.

How ageism is hidden

The same could be said for the tech sector, which tends to skew towards a younger workforce. A woman who used to work for one of the largest, most recognizable tech firms spoke to Fast Company on the condition of anonymity. “Reality is there are probably many who don’t know they are victims [of ageism] because they aren’t even making it to the first interview,” she says.

The other issue is that while age is one of the easiest demographics for companies to track, it’s rarely shared in diversity reports, according to Paradigm’s Midwest managing director Erin Thomas. Paradigm is a diversity and inclusion strategy firm that partners with leading technology startups and Fortune 500 companies.

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Thomas points out that age gets overlooked because most companies possess fixed mindsets about the skills and roles of older vs. younger workers. “Generational diversity is rarely reported because the underlying inference is that age data are reflected in the job level data that are often reported (individual contributors, managers, VPs+, C-suite, etc.),” Thomas says.

While many mature organizations possess a “pay your dues” mentality with timed career progressions where it can be nearly impossible for younger employees to accelerate, she says young companies–like many in tech–have a major bias when it comes to older workers.

Another way to think about inclusive culture

“Boomers are 60% less likely and gen Xers are 33% less likely to be hired compared to their representation in the workforce,” says Thomas. In turn, she says, “this generational blindspot has become reinforced and grown because older workers haven’t been given opportunities to defy negative assumptions about what they’re able to do.”

Tech companies with older workers usually have them in more senior management roles. Among those who are reporting the age of their workforce are Indiegogo and Hubspot. Neither company has many older workers in individual contributor roles.

The average age of Indiegogo‘s whole company is 32, for instance. However, a company spokesperson says that team leaders on average are 43.5 and the average age of the executive team is 46. She says that there are some not at those higher levels. “We’re pleased to have three employees over the age of 40 in non-management roles and continuing to hire a more diverse workplace is a top priority for us.”

Julia Kanouse, the CEO of the Illinois Technology Association says that inclusion is key to making older workers feel like they belong at lower level jobs in tech companies. She knows of a company who is a member of ITA has a workforce that is 80% millennials. Kanouse says a recent hire–a woman in her late-forties with children, felt extremely unwelcome at the organization. “Although she may not be who you think of as an “older” worker, she felt out of place and had trouble connecting with the company culture,” says Kanouse. She was ashamed to talk about her kids and was uncomfortable putting pictures of them up in her workspace. The social events, the language used in the office, the informal water cooler talk all contributed to her sense of not belonging, and she left the organization within six months, Kanouse says.

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“A company’s culture needs to be welcoming to people of all ages and stages of life, regardless of the company’s demographics,” says Kanouse. “Whether old for your culture is 45 or 75, the key benefit of integrating an older worker is the life experience they bring.” She says that companies looking to hire older workers need to be prepared to adjust how they think about getting work done. “Whether they have children at home, aging parents or just can no longer put in a 14-hour day,” she says, “and provide the kinds of benefits that are going to attract and, in the long run, retain your target workforce.”

Aubrey Blanche, global head of diversity and belonging at Atlassian says that in addition to fostering a culture that makes it safe to talk about the impact of ageism, they emphasize growth journeys and not just career paths. “This means the focus is less on advancing up the ladder (although that’s an option) and more about what skills and experiences you’re gaining from your role,” she says. Blanche contends that this creates much more flexibility for people in all age groups, but can be especially helpful in combating the idea that you have to be older or more experienced than someone working at a higher level. “This has ultimately allowed us to improve the representation of teammates over 40 from 12% to 18.7% over the last three years,” she points out.

At Hubspot, 21% of the staff are between the ages of 16-25 and the majority 64% are between 26-35. Only 3% are over age 46 yet they hold 50% of top executive roles. One percent of those over 46 are individual contributors. According to Katie Burke, HubSpot’s chief people officer, the company launched a Returners Program in Dublin over the past 18 months, “specifically to welcome experienced professionals back to the workforce after a break for child or elder care.” Burke says they also significantly increased the paid family leave policy globally.

Burke says Hubspot doesn’t disclose the ages of the people in the Returners program, but the average time out of the workforce ranged from 2 to 12 years. “Our goal this year is to have 10-12 total participants,” she says, and they are exploring similar options in both North America and the Asia Pacific region.

Carin Taylor, chief diversity officer at Workday, says the company also implemented a returnship program in September 2018. “During this four-month paid program, we saw experienced professionals get the training, support, and mentorship needed to relaunch their careers,” she says, adding that the cohort was made up of people who had been out of the corporate workforce from 2 to 16 years.

Although she acknowledges that it can be intimidating for older workers to jump back in, Taylor believes they can bring a lot to Workday. “The skills they’ve garnered during their time away include everything from complex problem-solving to the ability to adapt quickly, to strong interpersonal and communication skills,” she says. Returnship participants can have a higher level of engagement and loyalty to their employers. “Our first cohort of participants resulted in a 90% conversion to full-time hires.”

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The EEOC report finds that most workers today are expected to have 11 different jobs in the modern, dynamic economy. That’s why Taylor emphasizes the need for age not to be a factor in hiring. “Assuming that everyone needs to have a traditional career path are days of the past,” she says, “and employers are beginning to realize that skills are acquired in many different ways.”

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About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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