4 signs you might be more ageist than you think

Bias against older workers is very common. Here are some telltale indicators that you or your organization aren’t as bias-free as you might like to think.

4 signs you might be more ageist than you think
[Photo: Prostock-Studio/iStock]

Of the many kinds of bias that exist in the workplace, ageism is one of the most pervasive. A recent report by Hiscox found that 21% workers have experienced age discrimination and 44% know someone who has. Respondents said that ageism has cost them jobs, raises, and promotions. And the issue is more serious for women.


However, by 2024, one-quarter of the U.S. workforce will be made up of workers age 55 and older, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. So, fostering a workplace culture that isn’t inclusive of all ages is not only shortsighted, it may affect your ability to attract and retain the best talent. It’s such an issue that the World Health Organization has even rolled out a plan to attack it.

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“We all internalize stereotypes and make assumptions, and older people experience this through unfounded societal biases that older employees are less innovative, adaptive, and generally less qualified,” says Amelia Costigan, senior director of Information Center, and librarian at Catalyst, a nonprofit focused on workplace equality. “The misconception that age affects ability leads many companies to create workplaces that are quick to welcome young workers and even quicker to dismiss older ones.”

So what things should you be aware of when trying to combat ageism? There are four telltale signs that your workplace might not be as inclusive as you’d like to think:

Your coworkers are all young—and you never thought about it

One of the simplest ways to tell if your organization is doing a good job is to simply look around, says Patti Temple Rocks, a workplace consultant and author of I’m Not Done:It’s Time to Talk About Ageism in the Workplace. “Do an age audit to just understand the people that are working for my organization. Do they mirror the population at large? Do they mirror our customer? Chances are really good that … they don’t,” she says.

If you don’t already have older workers in your place of business, it’s very possible your organization isn’t doing a good enough job making them feel welcome as employees.


You’re relying on old stereotypes

Rocks advises companies and managers to stop making assumptions about people of a certain age. Common myths are that their salary requirements are too high, that they’re not willing to travel, or they’re not good with technology. In some cases, conversations about career development and goals stop happening when the employees are in their 40s or early 50s.

Those are all mistakes, she says. Older workers may be better able to take on travel or expat assignments than people with young children. And the thought that people can’t manage technology because of their age is just silly, she says. Toss out assumptions, and evaluate each employee or candidate individually.

You’re not actively working to combat biases

Everyone has unconscious biases, but if you’re not taking steps to overcome them, chances are that it’s affecting your workplace, says Stan C. Kimer, president of Total Engagement Consulting by Kimer, a diversity consulting firm. Training and exercises designed to identify and address unconscious bias can help, he says. A variety of tools, including artificial intelligence-powered HR platforms, virtual reality and gamified tools, and even good, old-fashioned training sessions can help your team members identify the assumptions they’re making and how they could be hurting your attempts at cultivating a truly diverse workforce, he says.

Your recruitment process doesn’t consider age inclusivity

From the way you write your job descriptions to the images you show on your website, you’re broadcasting messages about your company’s culture to would-be candidates, says attorney and unconscious bias expert Kelly Charles-Collins. If people don’t see images of those who look like them in your company materials and website, they may assume that they don’t belong. And if you use words and phrases like “young” or “digital native” in your job descriptions in reference to the candidate or company, you are likely sending signals that older people need not apply.

It’s also important to ensure that you’re not inadvertently masking recruitment efforts from older candidates. In 2017, an investigation by reporters at Pro Publica and The New York Times found some organizations using age parameters on job ads to limit those who could see the ad. It’s also a good idea to have clear conversations with your recruiters and hiring managers that you’re interested in older workers and they should be part of your recruitment process.

Many of the steps you take to address the issues to combat ageism in your workplace will also make your organization more inclusive overall, says Charles-Collins. In such a tight labor market, that can help you deepen the pool of talent you’re able to attract.

About the author

Gwen Moran is a writer, editor, and creator of Bloom Anywhere, a website for people who want to move up or move on. She writes about business, leadership, money, and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites