Age Discrimination:
Outmoded, Illegal and Bad for Business

American businesses of all sizes are grappling with a soft economy, fiscal uncertainty, company downsizing, and overall belt tightening. These factors, particularly staff downsizings, are producing a substantial pool of jobseekers not historically a major part of the recruitment mix for hiring managers. Many of these downsized candidates are older, mature individuals, with years of experience and, in many cases, significant salaries to match their skills, experience and value to former employers.

This influx of older workers into the recruitment pool has posed some interesting dilemmas for both hiring managers and these prospective candidates. Older workers may bring work and salary expectations that a hiring company cannot meet while, alternatively, hiring managers may harbor prejudices that could influence hiring decisions, and perhaps pose a liability to their companies.

Age discrimination with employees has been around for decades, but legislation addressing this illegal practice was only enacted in 1967. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibits age discrimination throughout the employment process, including recruitment, hiring, promotion, job placement, training, performance evaluation, compensation, disciplinary action, and termination (including layoffs). The Act applies to employers with 20 or more employees, and protects employees and potential candidates 40 years of age and older. But most cases of age discrimination are hard to trace, and even harder to prove, hidden in subtle phrases and covert actions.

And therein lies a major stumbling block to identifying, addressing, and preventing age discrimination. As Sacha Cohen notes in her article of March 7, 2002 in, entitled “How to Fight Age Discrimination”, “Most instances of age bias are difficult to prove and fall into the category of what Barry Maher, a professional development and management consultant, calls ‘ageism by euphemism’. To avoid accusations of age bias, employers might say, ‘We need employees to be up on all the latest trends’ or ‘We need someone who is able to relate to our customer demographic or who is energetic and vigorous.”

Particularly difficult to prove are situations of perceived age discrimination in the hiring process. Older workers feel that they receive fewer callbacks, interviews, and resume receipt acknowledgment, but have no concrete evidence. In her article noted earlier, Cohen quotes Laurie McCann, senior attorney for the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) Foundation Litigation, the arm of AARP that represents people in litigation. “Discrimination in hiring is the most difficult type of age discrimination to prove. There’s not a lot of hard evidence. They send out resume after resume, but they’re not getting hired. They know in their hearts it’s their age.”

Employers need to take stock of their managers’, and their own, attitudes toward older workers. They also need to take the temperature of the company culture, and what employees and managers are trained to believe about what constitutes a good employee. They should also look at employee lists, noting ages and years of experience. If discriminatory thinking or behavior is modeled at the senior management levels, then it’s a good bet that these patterns will be mirrored at all levels of the company.

It’s not enough for the human resources director or senior management to remind all staff on a regular basis that discrimination, including age discrimination, is an illegal practice and can cost the company big bucks in EEOC charges and civil lawsuits. The monitoring and modeling of fair and equitable employment practices within an organization must be a key focus of decision-makers. Companies that rank high with both employees and stockholders keep close watch on their missions, performance, employee performance and customer satisfaction.

Discrimination in any form is not only illegal, but also a bad business practice. And the pool of experienced workers available today offers an abundance of skill, talent, interest, enthusiasm and energy to receptive employers. Take advantage of this readily available employee resource, and keep an open mind. You may be pleasantly surprised.

“Wisdom is the daughter of experience.”
Leonardo da Vinci

This article was originally published in NACS Magazine, the official trade magazine of the National Association of Convenience Stores.