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Tackling Ageism in the Workplace

By Nithin Coca

We've made considerable progress on increasing diversity in workplaces over the past decade, though numerous challenges remain. One area in particular that needs addressing is ageism – not offering positions or promotions to an individual solely due to their age. As corporate layoffs abound and Silicon Valley perks suit the twenty-something set's needs, not their parents', we need to double-down on our efforts to ensure that ageism is eliminated from our workplaces.

We live in a society that normalizes ageism. Today, in far too many offices, making jokes about one's age remains acceptable -- even as we've moved on from making similar comments about race, gender and sexual orientation. This normalization of ageism is a major problem, said Dara Smith, an attorney with the AARP Foundation.

“Ageism is so commonplace that many people don’t even know it’s illegal,” Smith told TriplePundit. “Ageist comments, even self-deprecatory ones, are common parlance, and they don’t carry the stigma of other types of prejudice.”

There's a legal angle, too. Organizations that discriminate on the basis of age -- either overtly or due to unchallenged bias -- are not only discriminating, but they are also breaking the law. Ageism is illegal and has been since the Age Discrimination in Employment Act was passed in 1967. The act, quite clearly, “protects certain applicants and employees 40 years of age and older from discrimination on the basis of age in hiring, promotion, discharge, compensation, or terms, conditions or privileges of employment.”

The challenge is the same one that faces many minorities – discrimination in practice is hard to prove. Just as you'll rarely hear someone directly cite race, or gender, as a reason why someone was not hired or promoted, one will ever say that they refused to offer someone a position simply due to their age.

“To avoid any allegations, they tell the candidate that they are not a cultural fit for the company,” Marc Prosser, small business expert and co-founder of Fit Small Business, told TriplePundit. “'Cultural fit' is a way in which ageism and many forms of discrimination have been made acceptable in many workplaces.” Prosser believes that companies have a responsibility to communicate why they did not hire someone instead of hiding behind vague, undefinable terms.

The problem is that this is completely counterproductive. Denying someone a promotion or position due to age is not only illegal, but it also hurts the organization, as age bias negatively impacts productivity. Study after study shows that more diverse workplaces are better, more productive workplaces, and that age diversity is just as important as the more commonly thought-of racial, sexual orientation and gender categories.

“Diversity in the workforce, including age diversity, positively impacts everyone in the workplace,” sad Smith of the AARP Foundation. “In addition, research consistently shows the value of older workers’ experience, knowledge, expertise and loyalty.”

Tackling the problem requires shifting the entire organization's thinking, Smith told us.

“In all employment practices – recruiting, hiring, promoting, training and daily activity - focus on the job and skills needed for the job, not the applicant’s characteristics,” Smith advised. This can be as simple as not asking for graduation dates in application. It also means that managers need to be trained and equipped to deal with ageism in their departments, and, quite often, avoid being ageist themselves.

Another challenge is that technology is changing many jobs, creating barriers for those who did not have the opportunity to learn how to use new systems. For example, my mom struggled, initially, to adapt to using electronic medical recording systems after years of working with old-fashioned pen and paper.

The idea that people cannot use technology simply because they are older is completely false. What it does require, however, is that an company integrate skills-training into the workplace to ensure that everyone, regardless of age, can be at the top of their game.

It's been more than 40 years since ageism was made illegal, yet today it is still a major social problem. Only by tackling the problem head-on, in every department, can we begin to create workplaces that respect diversity in all of its varieties. Otherwise, it may be us who are victims in the future, as aging is something no one can avoid.

Image credit: Blue Diamond Gallery

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Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

Read more stories by Nithin Coca