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6 top tips for preventing ageism in the workplace


The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) protects individuals 40 and over from discrimination in any decision made during the full cycle of employment – including everything from hiring, termination, pay, job duties and beyond.

Fifty years after its enactment, one in four discrimination claims are still related to ageism, according to the EEOC.

Want your business to avoid becoming a statistic and getting caught up in a costly claim? Follow these tips to help prevent age discrimination in your organization.

1. Strive to maintain a diverse workforce

Hiring managers have a tendency to hire people who are similar to themselves, often without realizing their implicit bias. This can be problematic when it becomes clear that individuals aren’t being hired based on their qualifications for a particular job, but rather how well they’d fit in socially with your team.

You want to avoid this at all costs. Put some checks and balances in place where needed to ensure new employees are being selected for the right reasons.

For example, say you have a manager who says they’ve decided not to hire a candidate because they don’t think they’d be a good cultural fit. Check your manager’s definition of what that means.

Did the manager think an older candidate wouldn’t enjoy collaborating with younger co-workers and, therefore, disqualify the candidate? In this instance, the manager may have discriminated against the applicant based on age.

Or, was it revealed during the interview process that the candidate doesn’t do well at solving problems? If problem-solving skills are considered crucial to the culture of your organization or for the role being filled, the manager would have made the correct decision by assessing the candidate on their skills.

There’s a big difference between basing a decision on facts (like job skills demonstrated) and basing it on assumptions (such as assuming older workers don’t want to collaborate with their younger peers).

2. Avoid issues with your job descriptions

When you’re looking for soft skills that are required to fill a role, you must be mindful of how you describe those skills.

For example, using words like “young,” “energetic,” “fresh-minded” or “tech savvy” in a job description, or identifying a position as “perfect for a stay-at-home mom,” can be seen as discriminatory practice.

Instead, consider using words like “motivated,” “driven” or “dedicated” that convey a candidate’s passion and work ethic without the connotation that they must be young to successfully perform required duties.

Better yet, avoid determining what type of person would fit the role altogether, and instead describe the role itself in vivid detail.

3. Design your job application process with care

What information do you absolutely need to collect on your job applications?

For instance, do you really need work history starting from the beginning of time? Or, do you really need to know the year they graduated from high school or college?

Instead, on your job applications and in interviews, be more specific with your questions. For example, “Do you have 10 years of experience in this field?” or “Can you use this software program?”

Don’t ask for unnecessary information. If an applicant or employee files an age discrimination claim, it can be used as evidence to prove that your hiring manager was aware of the candidate’s age and that it influenced their hiring decision negatively.

For example, getting off topic slightly in an interview can steer you into trouble, as it could reveal clues about the candidate’s age. Even information that seems harmless, such as the age of someone’s children or grandchildren, could be damaging. In an EEOC complaint, a candidate could say, “This is how they knew my age. This topic came up during my interview process.”

Keep in mind that if applicant data is only needed for background screening purposes, it can be collected later in the hiring process when the actual screening is conducted.

Seek guidance from a subject-matter expert to stay out of murky waters. A reputable recruiting and background screening service provider can help you stay on point throughout the process. For example, they can help you:

  • Avoid blatant mistakes, such as asking for an applicant’s birthdate upfront.
  • Use a variety of recruiting tools, so you get a variety of diverse applicants.
  • Develop an application that avoids collecting unneeded information.
  • Create structured interview guides for consistency, so all applicants are asked the same questions.
  • Train interviewers to make sure they’re asking appropriate questions and avoiding inappropriate, off-topic conversations.
  • Determine hiring criteria and document how decisions were made, to help you defend every hiring decision.
  • Follow appropriate procedures for background screenings, including state-by-state guidance.

4. Steer clear of stereotypes

Never assume that an employee can’t keep up with new industry trends or won’t understand new technology. Many older employees are eager to take on new challenges and learn the latest technology, and making assumptions based on age can lead to a discrimination claim.

Implicit bias training, along with discrimination and harassment training, can be incredibly helpful in preventing this type of inappropriate behavior. Employees should be aware of the ADEA and the stipulations of the act.

Also, be sure to have a zero-tolerance anti-discrimination and harassment policy in place. This should provide guidelines and expectations around inclusiveness. All employees, of all ages, should be treated in the same manner. If there are deviations from those expectations, leaders must hold individuals accountable.

5. Understand the rules of retirement

Just because someone is older in age, you cannot assume they’re ready for retirement.

As we’re living longer and jobs are less physically demanding, workers today often stay in their jobs well after the Social Security retirement age.

Typically, you cannot force an employee to retire. And asking questions around when an employee plans to retire is also off limits.

6. Watch your words

Obviously, you should avoid calling your employee “old.” But you need to do more than that.

You must also avoid making disparaging comments about yourself. Even saying things like “back in the day” or “my old brain” or “I’m old fashioned” can be problematic. You might think that you’re saying these things playfully, but your words could have the potential to make older employees feel discriminated against.

Create an inclusive environment for all employees by avoiding these types of comments.

Enjoy the benefits of a discrimination-free workplace

Last year, more than 20,000 EEOC claims filed were related to age discrimination. Often, these cases ended in costly monetary pay-outs that may have been avoided with a little education and effort.

Besides, you wouldn’t want to miss out on a large and talented pool of individuals. If you want your organization to be as successful as possible, hire and retain the best talent that’s out there – regardless of age.

Want more guidance on how to avoid discrimination claims? Download our free e-book, Employment Law: Are You Putting Your Business at Risk?