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Workplace ageism requires leadership action: 10 steps to proactively address the problem

December 5, 2021
Diversity & Inclusion

It’s about time the media started addressing the workplace ism that’s been ignored for years–ageism. Shifting demographics are raising a thunderous roar of voices calling attention to the issue and demanding action. Now the topic of ageism is a daily topic of discussion in organizations and in social and online media.

Just yesterday, Fast Company wrote that tech has an ageism problem and suggested three things people 40 and over should do to stay relevant. Spoiler alert: These tips apply to anyone of any age. But what’s important is that people are finally addressing the elephant in the room–workplace age bias and discrimination and the plethora of myths, assumptions and stereotypes that drive them.

That’s good news because workplace ageism is real and impacts people across the age spectrum.

A couple of days ago, the Philadelphia Inquirer posted the story “Addressing ageism with urgency,” citing a World Health Organization report around the importance of changing the narrative around age and aging and adopting strategies to counter ageist attitudes and behavior. Although the report was published last March, companies (and the media) are just getting their heads around it.

And that’s good because ageism is a global phenomenon that requires global action to address.

Once everyone begins talking about workplace ageism, accountability measures will become commonplace. Perhaps driven by federally mandated legislation.

A third article, “Trump Judge Dismisses Age Discrimination Case Despite Credible Evidence: Our Court, Our Fight,” outlines Eleventh Circuit Judge Robert J. Luck’s dismissal of an assistant county attorney’s claim that he was fired due to age discrimination. The authors assert this ruling “sets a troubling precedent in age bias cases that will hurt working people in all the states covered by the Eleventh Circuit (Florida, Georgia, and Alabama).”

While that’s bad news on the surface, Congress has two pieces of legislation to remedy the problem. The Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act or POWADA eases the burden of proof for the complaining party. The bill permits the complaining party to rely on any type or form of admissible evidence sufficient for a reasonable finding that an unlawful practice occurred and declares that the complaining party shall not be required to demonstrate that age or retaliation was the sole cause of the employment practice.

The second piece of legislation is Protect Older Job Applicants or POJA, which prohibits employers from limiting, segregating, or classifying job applicants based on an applicant’s age, and requires the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to study and report on claims received from job applicants involving age discrimination. Both are long overdue and absolutely necessary to combat age discrimination in hiring.

Both pieces of legislation currently reside in the Senate pending further review. In the meantime, what is certain is that companies can no longer deny that age, like every other protected dimension of diversity, deserves leadership attention and action.

10 Ways Leaders Can Take Action Now

Here are ten steps companies can take to get ahead of age-related issues and ensure workplace age equity.

  1. Ensuring age is a part of DEI programming. Helping employees recognize their own unconscious bias is part of any diversity, equity and inclusion initiative—recognizing how age bias manifests in the workplace and effectively challenging it is a critical first step. The fact that age bias, myths and stereotypes have the potential to amplify the potential prejudice and discrimination across other dimensions of diversity, such as race, gender, sexual orientation or ability, makes it even more urgent.
  2. Conduct a complete age equity audit with a review of internal and external policies, processes and messaging. Is age included in the company’s anti-discrimination and harassment policy? Does your diversity recruiting strategy include age as a dimension of diversity? Does your Equal Employment statement include age?
  3. Avoid using generational labels such as Boomer, GenX, Millennial, GenZ since these labels have stereotypes attached to them. Refer to specific age ranges, if necessary, or default to 10-year brackets.
  4. Don’t lump older employees into a 40+ category. There are a lot of working years that follow 40. Call them what they are.
  5. Report age demographics as a demonstration of your age IQ. Be transparent. Prospective employees, customers and stakeholders across that age spectrum will thank you (and respect you more).
  6. Review your external website for image and language inequities. Does imaging include diversity of race, gender, family structure, ability and age? If the faces are diverse but all under 30, what message does that send potential talent? Your customers? Your stakeholders? Current employees?
  7. Conduct anonymous employee surveys to measure employee beliefs about age and aging in your workplace. Culture change requires awareness building. Create a safe space to talk about these beliefs, question their validity and create opportunities to disrupt the bias through mutual mentoring and intergenerational teamwork.
  8. Actively create and measure the results of age-equitable teams.
  9. Sponsor an Age Equity ERG: Provide a safe place to discuss age-related concerns. Partner with leaders in the organization who can investigate and address these concerns. Is there a pattern of passing up older workers for promotions? Are younger employees dismissed for challenging development assignments or given an unfair share of tedious work?
  10. It’s a given that leaders should lead by example, and age equity is no exception. But even leaders don’t know what they don’t know, which is why leadership must understand the urgency in creating diverse, age-equitable organizations. That’s the only way they will survive in the future of work given demographic shifts. It’s up to HR and DEI leaders to make sure they have the understanding they need.

COVID-19 has demonstrated that workplace change can happen overnight. Waking up to the importance of age equity has been painfully slow. However, the increase in dialogue addressing the issue is reassuring.

The truth is, age equity is not about people over 40 staying relevant–that’s a given for anyone seeking employment, regardless of age.

What people are counting on are leaders ensuring their organizations remain relevant. And that means understanding how to attract, develop and retain a diverse, all-aged workplace.

by: Sheila Callaham


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