What is ageism in the workplace?

If you’ve ever wondered what ageism is, what it looks like at work, whether it really exists, or why it’s bad for business—this is the resource for you. It may even be a good refresher. Dive in to learn more about age discrimination, the law, and 7 signs of ageism in the workplace. 

Ageism in the workplace

Ageism is discrimination or prejudice on the basis of age. In the workplace, ageism is evident when hiring decisions, layoffs, pay, or promotions are influenced by how old an employee is. Treating workers differently because they’re “too old” or “too young” negatively affects company culture and gets in the way of a cognitively diverse and successful workplace.

Ageism isn’t just about those with more revolutions around the sun. It can be against younger people too. What might that look like at work? A manager who refuses to assign a project to someone because they’re Gen Z is a form of discrimination. Assuming someone in their twenties is addicted to social media, making comments like “kids these days,” or refusing to invite young employees to meetings are forms of age-related prejudice too. 

Ageism towards older adults might include choosing to lay off a worker because they’re the oldest person on the team, or passing over someone’s job application because they have “too many years of experience.” Withholding training opportunities or eliminating the positions of older employees is another example of age-related discrimination.

Is age discrimination illegal?

According to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), it’s illegal to discriminate against job applicants or employees who are 40 years of age or older. Specifically, these workers are protected from age-related discrimination when making hiring or firing decisions, offering promotions, or providing compensation. ADEA is enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). 

Workers under the age of 40 are not protected by ADEA, but some states have laws in place that prohibit discrimination against younger people. For instance, it’s against the law to discriminate against any age (younger or older) in Connecticut, Michigan, and Hawaii. Review your state laws to ensure compliance.

Of course, no matter what the law is, it’s always wrong to discriminate. Whether you’re reviewing job applications, deciding who to promote, or offering bonuses, consider the individual, not the age. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. It’s better to evaluate each person based on skills, knowledge, abilities, and unique perspectives. For example, just because one person is older doesn’t automatically mean they have the skills to lead a team. On the other hand, just because another employee is younger doesn’t mean they’re more efficient or energetic. 

What are signs of age discrimination in the workplace? 

We’ve touched on a few forms of age discrimination at work, but let’s dig a little deeper. Becoming more aware of age discrimination can help eliminate it from our workplaces and empower us to advocate for more welcoming communities.

Preference for younger workers

If younger employees are given more opportunities for training and skills development than older workers, this is a form of age discrimination. Assigning more meaningful projects or offering promotions at a faster rate to younger people also demonstrates bias against employees in other age groups. Asking job seekers about graduation dates or their age, and only seeking to advance younger applicants through the hiring process, is also problematic.

Favoritism for younger employees could surface in social situations too. Maybe only younger people are invited to team-building or networking events. Or maybe they’re encouraged to contribute more in meetings while others are routinely ignored. Behaving more positively towards younger employees, while excluding older ones, contributes to a negative company culture and reduces collaboration.

Age-related stereotyping

All stereotypes make harmful and untrue assumptions about a person’s personality, skillsets, or experiences. They get in the way of people feeling comfortable bringing their authentic selves to work and reduce team effectiveness. Age-related stereotypes can impact the way both younger and older employees are treated. 

Some common stereotypes that affect senior employees include assumptions that they don’t understand technology, are set against change, or are unable to keep up in fast-paced workplaces. Negative stereotypes affect younger workers too. Some believe young people are lazy, unmotivated, or too concerned with work-life balance. None of these assumptions are an accurate judge of a person’s true character or ability to succeed.

Inequitable layoffs or termination

Layoffs are especially unfortunate when a company’s older employees are the only people subject to cutbacks. Disguising this kind of discrimination by simply “eliminating” the roles of older employees is also problematic. Changing the job requirements for older workers to make them seem “incompetent” or “unable to meet their goals” is a form of age-related discrimination too.

Companies that perform imbalanced layoffs are subject to legal action. Former employees who have been let go and suspect ageism might file complaints with the EEOC, and the workplace will have to prove they engaged in reasonable and fair treatment of their employees. 

Exclusion from decision-making

When leaders and decision-makers only seek input from people of a specific demographic—for example, only considering opinions from men, heteronormative people, or white people—it’s due to bias. Ignoring feedback from older employees when making decisions is a form of ageism. If you’re afraid to ask someone’s opinion who is of a different generation, perhaps because you assume you won’t like their idea, or they’ll be “too progressive” or “too old-fashioned,” consider doing some internal work to remedy this. Including workers of all backgrounds in decision-making leads to more innovation, creative problem-solving, and increased productivity. Most importantly, everyone has someone valuable to contribute! 

Overlooking older employees in favor of the young is a missed opportunity. Taking feedback into consideration from older workers while rejecting younger workers is also discriminatory. Workers of all ages have something to contribute when it comes to making hiring decisions, developing business strategies, or making plans to achieve shared goals.

Differential compensation

Compensation is more than just salary. It includes bonuses, overtime pay, profit sharing, holiday or vacation pay, and travel reimbursements. All employees must be compensated equally for doing equal work. This includes pathways to promotions—if older employees are performing work that meets requirements, they should be given the same recognition as all other employees. Older workers deserve the same chance to advance in their careers as their peers. 

At the same time, making “X years of experience” a requirement to achieve promotion, rather than evaluating employees based on competencies, could be considered age discrimination against young people. If a younger employee is capable, they shouldn’t be excluded simply because they are one or two years shy of a stated requirement. The same goes for job seekers—evaluating an applicant’s abilities is much more meaningful than seeing if they check off a “years worked” box.

Some organizations might take advantage of young job seekers and offer them lower compensation, even if they’re doing the same amount and quality of work. Expecting younger workers to work overtime or make themselves available on off-hours without extra pay is unfair. Even in the medical field, where young doctors were once expected to work many hours of overtime, things are changing. Many teaching facilities now restrict how many hours residents can work in a week. 

Age-related comments

Comments don’t need to be direct to make employees feel unwelcome. Referring to young workers as “fresh-faced” or “energetic” while overlooking older individuals demonstrates a bias in favor of the youthful. Referring to older employees as “stubborn” or “slow” is unkind and untrue. Making general statements about how someone behaves because of their age doesn’t give each individual the chance to be themselves. It makes the workplace uncomfortable for all.

Comments aren’t casual, either. Research shared by the American Psychological Association shows that older people who absorb negative comments and beliefs suffer from physical, cognitive, and mental health declines more quickly. This does not build a supportive environment where employees can perform at their best. Making harmful comments about any age group will lead to a toxic company culture where stereotypes, cliques, and disrespect become the norm.

Lack of accommodations

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination based on disability, including in the workplace. While employees must be able to satisfy the requirements of their jobs, workplaces need to provide reasonable accommodations to those in need. Accommodations include assistive equipment or devices, modified work schedules, readers or interpreter tools, and more accessible office spaces. 

As people age, they might develop conditions that require accommodations. For instance, employees may need a schedule that allows them to attend doctor appointments. They might require improved seating and flooring for enhanced physical safety, or closed captions on work-related videos. However, managers shouldn’t assume that employees with changing needs are unable to meet work objectives. Instead, they should ensure all employees have the tools they need to do their jobs well. Refusal to do so is a form of age discrimination and clear evidence of noncompliance.

Consequences of age discrimination in a company

According to the Job Accommodation Network, there will be 98 million older people in the United States by 2060. That’s double what the population was in 2013! With an aging workforce, workplaces must learn to embrace what older employees have to offer sooner rather than later. Older employees have expertise and wisdom that other employees might lack. They can serve as mentors and offer different perspectives that enhance innovation and problem-solving. Offering part-time mentorship roles could be a great way for experienced workers to participate in training the up-and-coming generations. And, older generations have unique strengths—they show higher engagement and lower turnover rates than their counterparts.

Young professionals have valuable, positive qualities too. They tend to be mindful of equity initiatives, are knowledgeable about building connections online, and are uniquely skilled at multitasking (though we know there are pros and cons to this). Some studies also show that younger generations place higher value on educational opportunities.

What does this mean for your company? A blended workforce of people from all generations is the best way to see engaged, thoughtful, and effective teams. Collaboration between generations ensures knowledge transfer from older workers, while younger employees who receive mentorship become more engaged and less susceptible to turnover. 

When hiring decisions are being made, focus on the quality of the candidates, rather than age, and you’ll naturally grow a community of both older and younger employees. Shared knowledge and complementary skills will drive teams towards success. Failure to include people of all ages and backgrounds only leads to stagnation.

Preventing ageism in the workplace 

Fostering a workplace where the strengths of all employees are recognized starts with a healthy hiring process. Don’t overlook candidates just because of their age—all job seekers should be given a fair chance to showcase their personalities and abilities. 

Using technology to help combat ageism in the workplace can help. Redacting resumes for graduation dates or the “I worked here from X to Y” details is a good place to start evaluating applicants more fairly. Delivering consistent interviews is another way to ensure each candidate is given the same opportunity to fill open positions. Book a meeting with the Clovers team to learn how the right tools can help prevent ageism in hiring today!

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