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Signs of Ageism in the Workplace and 12 Ways to Address It

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Many organizations are today well acquainted with the benefits that fostering a diverse workforce can provide. A new wave of employers, HR managers, and employees see value in an inclusive work environment, and yet, age discrimination in the workplace is still alive and well.

Despite its prevalence, ageism is one of the least-discussed types of bias in society. It refers to the stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel), and discrimination (how we act) towards others, or oneself, based on age.

The sad reality is that ageism is everywhere. It’s in policies that support healthcare rationing by age, patronizing behavior between younger and older people, self-limiting behaviors, marketing, and myths. Challenging ageism is not an easy task, but a good way to start is to tackle ageism in the workplace – one of the biggest sources of ageism.

Ageism in the workplace

New research of Australia’s older workers has found that experiences of ageism in the workplace have almost doubled in the last five years. One in five workers (20.75%) aged over 50 had encountered age discrimination in their place of work, twice as many compared to 2016. More than three quarters of Australians aged over 50 want to keep working indefinitely and almost 90% of retirees plan to re-enter the workforce, and yet, more than 40% say they have felt patronised in the workplace because of their age.

In response to the ageism so many experiences, one in four seniors admit to trying to make themselves look younger in the workplace or when applying for jobs. They dye their hair, get a haircut, wear more makeup and change their fashion. They are also becoming increasingly proactive at upskilling to keep up with industry trends.

Signs of ageism in the workplace

Most hiring managers and HR professionals will tell you that their company doesn’t stand for ageism and that it doesn’t exist in their place of work. Look closely, however, and you’ll start to see a few cracks.

Ageism in the workplace presents itself in many different forms:

  • Belittling comments and remarks about a person’s age.
  • Being overlooked for challenging assignments, travel opportunities or raises
  • Being left out of company activities or client meetings
  • Giving preference to younger employees over older employees
  • Underlying assumptions such as a spoken or unspoken assumption that a person over 50 won’t have young kids at home and therefore isn’t entitled to take time off during school holidays
  • Questions about retirement plans
  • Lack of promotion or professional development opportunities
  • Job description wording such as ‘join a dynamic and young team’
  • Making age-related choices regarding redundancy
  • Workplace social isolation
  • Blatant harassment or bullying

 

These experiences have a very real impact on career development in older age, with over three-fifths (70.6%) of those surveyed in the Australian Seniors Series: Ageing in the Workforce 2021 strongly agreeing that as we get older, it becomes harder to find a job. It’s particularly problematic in today’s world because there are a lot more older people in the workplace. Individuals are prolonging their working lives for financial reasons, and retiring much later than they did in the past. COVID-19 has also had an impact, with one in five seniors feeling like their retirement plans have been impacted.

 

Tackling ageism in the workplace

 

While ageism exists, there are a number of things you can do to proactively fight against it. This includes:

 

1.   Understanding the issue

If you have no in-house experience on the subject of ageism, do your research and raise your own awareness. It’s important to not just understand what ‘discrimination’ and ‘harassment’ means but also why they are hurtful, unlawful, and totally unacceptable in the workplace.

2.   Maintaining a diverse workforce

Remember that lively dinner party you went to? Chances are it was lively because there was a mix of different people at the table with plenty of interesting things to say. The same liveliness applies when mixing up the workforce within an organization.

Assemble the right mix of employees and make everyone feel welcome and you can spark creativity with an infusion of new ideas and perspectives. Align your culture more closely with the reality of the Australian nation – a vibrant, multicultural population that’s aging. Recruit outside the box and identify with others who are different from you.

3.   Investing in sensitivity training

Some people might be reluctant to get on the diverse workplace bandwagon, especially in an industry or organisation that has been a particular way for a long time. Sensitivity training can help employees to examine and adjust their perspectives about people who are different to them. Sensitivity training helps to raise awareness of ageism and teaches you to appreciate the views of others, learn what’s defined as offensive, communicate calmly and not make assumptions.

4.   Paying attention to job description wording

Whether you are looking for hard or soft skills or a combination of both, choose your wording carefully. Words like “tech-savvy”, “energetic” and “driven” can be off-putting to an older person considering applying for a job, as they may assume you’ve already made your mind up about employing a young person. Identifying a position as “perfect for a stay-at-home Mum” can also be seen as a discriminatory practice.

5.   Asking for the details you really need

When designing your job application processes, avoid asking for unnecessary information. Do you really need work history starting from the beginning of time? Do you really need to know what year they graduated high school or university? These details can make an applicant feel uncomfortable and they can be used against you in an age discrimination claim as they can be used as evidence that you were aware of the candidate’s age and that it influenced your hiring decision negatively. Consider asking questions like “Do you have 5 years experience in this field?” or “Can you use this software program?” instead.

6.   Revisiting your company website

Before placing a job advert, check your website. Does it support the idea of an inclusive and diverse workplace? A great place to start is with your company’s mission statement, but take a look at (and revise if necessary) language, imagery and your company’s narrative.

7.   Offering training and promotional opportunities

Just because a person is older doesn’t mean they are planning to soon retire. Many older Australians are still committed to rising through the ranks and taking on new challenges. People are living longer and many workers are choosing to stay in work as long as possible. They are keen to learn, upskill, meet new people and explore new business trends and technologies, so support them by offering training, professional development and promotional opportunities.

8.   Looking for social cues

Keep an eye on the behaviour of staff and put a stop to any harmful social cues you see. Birthday cards that joke about age and ‘senior moments’ might be given with affection and jest but they can signal bias towards older workers. So too can lunch dates that socially isolate older workers.

9.   Creating a safe space to share concerns

Creating a safe space for employees to share their workplace concerns is crucial when tackling ageism (or any form of bias). Cultivating open lines of communication creates trust, so manage conversations and not just meeting agendas. Treat everyone as a person who matters, not just as a worker and not just as their job role. Depersonalise conflict by discussing behaviours and actions and by listening attentively.

10.               Documenting evidence of discrimination

If you witness or hear of any discrimination in the workplace, document it. Talk to the person experiencing the discrimination and record incidences in a diary. Take action to address every incidence, no matter how small it may seem. Detail who was involved, what you did to address it and how you will monitor the situation.

11.               Supporting mentorship programs

Two-way mentorship programs can be a great way to bridge older and younger workers and ease age-related tensions. The over 50s can bring a wealth of knowledge and experience that can be shared with new starters, while younger employees can share their skills in certain technologies and applications.

 

12.               Creating an anti-discrimination policy

 

Your anti-discrimination policy will explain how you prevent discrimination and protect your employees, customers and stakeholders from offensive and harmful behaviours. This document can support your overall commitment to creating a safe and happy workplace for everyone. As well as address age discrimination, you may also like to address religion, ethnicity/nationality, disability, medical history, pregnancy/maternity/paternity, gender identity and sexual orientation.

 

Preventing ageism in the workplace

As an employer, it’s in your best interest to pay close attention to the most common signs of age discrimination. After all, you’re legally obligated to foster a workplace that’s free of discrimination and gives every employee a fair chance to succeed.

 

The Age Discrimination Act 2004 (ADA) prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of age. It applies to young and older workers alike. The ADA makes it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of age when advertising jobs; during recruitment and selection processes; when making decisions about training, transfer and promotion opportunities; and in the terms, conditions and termination of employment.

 

Hiding your head in the sand and choosing not to address ageism can lead to significant costs and disruptions, as well as legal action. Prevent age discrimination, however, and you can attract, motivate and retain good staff.

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