Proving Age Bias Isn’t Easy

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BaisIt’s illegal for employers to discriminate based on age. But age bias is widely acknowledged to be a key factor in job loss and hiring practices – something that should be painfully obvious to even a casual reader of newspapers, which routinely run articles about laid-off midlife workers.

In 2008, layoff-related age discrimination claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission were at a record high, and they were up 29 percent compared with 2007.

Discrimination in hiring is much harder to prove–in fact, it’s nearly impossible. But older workers don’t doubt that it exists. A new Civic Ventures survey of older workers found most employees reporting strong anecdotal evidence of ageism in job searches.

Survey respondents spoke of being weeded out of applicant pools. Many reported “getting the green light” during a phone interview, then watching the interviewer’s face fall when the applicant arrived for an in-person meeting. “No one called until I took the dates off my resume,” one job seeker said. “Then, their eyes grew wide when I met with them, making their surprise hard to miss.”

“Applicants told of interviewers using telltale phrases such as seeking someone who was ‘the right fit’ or ‘fit the culture,’ and rejecting them as ‘overqualified’ or ‘too experienced,'” reported Terry Nagel, a Civic Ventures spokesperson. Some were asked questions about their stamina and plans for retirement.

“Respondents reported that one common practice is asking applicants the date they graduated from high school,” she said. “Another way of trying to elicit an applicant’s age was asking if the applicant knew a person at their college who attended during a certain time frame. Some were asked their age point-blank.”

Several years ago, a researcher from the National Bureau of Economic Research set out to document ageism in hiring practices by measuring the response of employers to applicants of varying ages who responded to job postings.

Four thousand resumes for fictitious female applicants were sent to companies that had run newspaper ads for open jobs in Boston, Mass., and St. Petersburg, Fla., with ages ranging from 35 to 62. The fictitious ages were indicated by listing the date of high school graduation. The finding: Younger workers were more than 40 percent more likely to be called back for an interview than an older worker, when “older” was defined as age 50 or higher.

Even employers recognized for progressive hiring policies agree that workplace age discrimination is a key obstacle for older workers. The U.S. Government Accountability Office convened a conference in 2006 on the challenges facing older workers that included executives from AARP’s best companies ranking.

The conference’s final report concluded that workplace culture and employer perceptions can be unfriendly to older workers, and stated that many companies “have not learned to place high value on their experienced workers, and they do not understand that much of their organization’s intellectual capital and institutional memory can reside within their older employees.”

Employers tend to worry that older workers are less productive, less healthy and resistant to change. They also worry about cost issues, including health care, total compensation and training.

Beyond discrimination, many employers are just indifferent to the older workers’ desire to stay on the job longer. One survey that presented employers with a range of steps they might take to help improve retirement security of older workers pointed toward a “lukewarm” response to the idea of working a few additional years.

Working past page 50 isn’t a hopeless cause–far from it. But it’s important to approach the employment market with a sense of realism. Knowing what you’re up against is half the battle.

(Millions of Americans are reinventing retirement, and Mark Miller is helping write the playbook for new career and personal pursuits of a generation. Mark blogs at www.retirementrevised.com; contact him with questions and comments at mark@retirementrevised.com)

(c) 2009 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.