Age discrimination in hiring is often undetected

Originally published on Clarionledger.com, 9/22/2015, and in print 9/24/2015.

PDF: Age discrimination is often undetected

Back in February, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued Seasons 52 restaurants (owned by restaurant giant Darden, Inc.), alleging that the restaurant chain purposely failed to hire people over the age of 40. The agency investigated the company and 35 restaurants after two applicants claimed they weren’t hired because of their age. For its part, the company disputed the charges, saying that it had previously investigated the claims and found them to be false, and will “defend this claim vigorously”. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in court.

Age discrimination (also known as ageism) is not a new phenomenon. Perhaps as long as there have been employers, older workers have been at a disadvantage when being considered for many jobs. But at a time when the job market is brimming with candidates in their 50s or 60s, the stories are becoming more and more common: many wonderfully-qualified workers are being left in the cold because they’re not considered to fit into some arbitrary notion of the “perfect candidate”. With record numbers of older workers having been displaced since the Great Recession, it’s a real problem for many people who still have two or more productive decades left.

It’s really tragic, because as people live longer, their productive years are also extended; older workers can bring experience, wisdom and stability to an organization, among many other gifts. But it’s likely that many companies and organizations are missing out (or even breaking the law) when they ignore quality candidates who might be considered too old – or young – than their “ideal” candidate. Stereotypes about older workers’ lack of energy, enthusiasm, knowledge of culture and technology and perceived requirements are being exposed; still, hiring managers and search committees continue to use euphemisms like “overqualified” to dismiss resumes of older workers who might actually be just what they need.

Statistics about age-related hiring discrimination are sparse, in part because few admit to it, and because rejected applicants rarely if ever receive accurate, honest information about why they weren’t hired. But some statistics are available from the EEOC, which tracks age discrimination complaints. It’s also important to note that these statistics cover all types of age-discrimination complaints – not just in hiring.

According to the EEOC, age-discrimination complaints have risen from about 15,000 in 1997 to more than 20,500 in 2014. (Those numbers actually peaked in 2008, and have seen slight declines each year since). Anecdotally, people over 50 report that their job search can take much longer than for younger workers. And while age discrimination may be at play, it’s not always the culprit when an older person isn’t hired. An older worker may be legitimately passed over because they lack the requisite skills, knowledge or abilities to do the job.

In many cases, though, age discrimination in hiring is lurking in the shadows; many people may not even be aware of their own biases. Perhaps serving as a bellwether for this trend is hiring of ministers by church search committees. On his blog thomrainer.com, LifeWay Christian Resources CEO Thom Rainer noted that, when looking for ministry staff, many church search committees and hiring personnel seem to be ignoring older candidates in favor of younger ones, or in some cases are even failing to consider younger candidates who fall out of a “preferred” age range.

“I am seeing many churches experiencing difficulty finding pastors and other staff that meet their criteria,” Rainer noted. “The solution could be in looking at candidates who just might be younger or older than they originally anticipated. Don’t be surprised if you find some outstanding candidates either younger or older than you expected.”

Rainer’s conclusion: although members of search committees may be well-intentioned, by building a fence around a specific range of age or experience (even by something as simple as saying their ideal candidate is in “their 40s”), they are closing the door on potential candidates who may possess extensive experience and wisdom. At the other end of the spectrum, they may also be losing out when they pass over younger people, who could bring energy, generational experience and passion, because they might use the position as a “stepping stone” to bigger and better things.

One trend noted by Rainer is the “+15” mental calculation. “Such is the reason many persons 55 years and older have great difficulty finding a position,” Rainer notes. The “+15” calculation goes like this: if the typical minister serves at a church 15 years, you take the person’s current age, and add 15 years. For someone in their mid-50s, that would mean they’d be around 70 – the assumption is that such a person would be ineffective. (That notion would in most cases be ludicrous; consider Billy Graham, or any one of thousands of ministers who are still serving effectively even though they long ago became eligible for Medicare.)

This trend is not only apparent in churches; it seems to be pervasive throughout corporate hiring culture in general. And the ones doing it might not be whom you think. Writing in Forbes a year ago, blogger Kathy Caprino noted that although it’s commonly thought that younger people are the ones discriminating against older workers, it’s in fact their peers – others of similar age — who are often guilty of making or influencing an age-biased hiring decision.

People bring their own biases into a hiring situation, whether they know it or not. And while most people are keenly aware of racial or gender-based discrimination, they might not think seriously about age discrimination. But, in fact, it is illegal to base employment decisions on age if the person is 40 or older (and the business has 20 or more employees).

To avoid age discrimination becoming an issue for your company, it’s a good idea to consult an employment-law attorney, who can recommend best practices. Also, many experts recommend that hiring practices be examined from start to finish, eliminating age-specific requirements unless they’re really pertinent to the job, and avoiding setting up a situation in which age might be discussed. Defending your company from an age-discrimination complaint can be much more expensive than avoiding the problem altogether. The website workforce.com has some good advice on their website.

And, if you’re the one looking for a job, how do you get across the age-discrimination barrier? U.S. News and World Report’s Arnie Fertig notes that, if you do it correctly, you can actually turn your age into a strength. Here is his list of suggestions:

  1. Highlight your engagement. Share stories from your career that highlight how you overcame a challenge by being involved and engaged.
  2. Highlight your stability. Hiring is expensive and time-consuming; most employers disdain the process and try to minimize how often they do it. If you’ve established a track record of hanging in there when times got tough, and helped your company get through a crisis, tell stories that highlight those qualities.
  3. Highlight your productivity. “You can point out that because you are likely to be highly engaged and loyal, your productivity is likely also to excel. Because you are experienced and a quick study, the time it takes you to get up to speed in your new role should be minimal,” Fertig notes.
  4. Highlight your experience. Fertig notes that your experience has been attained over time, and can benefit the new company immediately.
  5. Highlight your up-to-date skills. Make certain that you keep up with the latest knowledge and skills that are relevant for your field,” Fertig advises. “Be sure to put your computer and other skills at the top of your resume. Moreover, talk about yourself as someone who continues to learn and grow.”
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