02 May, 2010

Institutional Ageism

Business owners sometimes tell me they’d love to hire some experienced workers but that those older workers don’t seem to apply. I tell them “Oh, yes they do, but the 20-somethings on the front end of your hiring process screen out the older workers who apply so you never see them.”

I mentioned this to Joan Freeman, whose LinkedIn profile says she is “Director, Gray Matters Coalition, committed to ending age discrimination in the work place.” And she asked me for a copy of a column I wrote a few years ago for Living Well 50 Plus. I told Joan that I wrote this column before Living Well 50 Plus started publishing on the Internet and that my hard copies and digital disk copies are both packed away in a box somewhere. The column was titled “How The Hiring Process Is Front Loaded for Age Bias” and its main idea is that companies that want to hire older workers need to put a few older workers on the front end of their hiring processes because Twentysomethings are trying to stock their companies with other Twentysomethings – people they want to socialize with, people they want to date, people whose experience doesn’t threaten them. The first person a job applicant encounters is often the youngest member of the HR department and the last thing an entry level employee wants is to hire people who remind them of their parents and have the experience to be their boss.

To be fair, I understand how Twentysomethings feel. They have spent their lives in the shadow of the Boomers who, it seems, are everywhere and run everything and, seemingly, never plan to retire and let younger generations have a chance to lead. I get it.

Here’s a basic fact of human nature: Organizations tend to get more of what they already have. If your church is full of old white people it’s a magnet for more old white people. I recently had to endure a day with a guy in his 60s who told me he was the youngest member of his church. I know the church. They fired the last pastor who tried to retain their younger people. In less than 10 years this admittedly old congregation will be unable to pay a minister or afford maintenance on their building. Even if they went on an all-out campaign to attract younger people, they will still die because young people don’t want to go to a church where there’s nobody their age.

If Boomers were on the front lines of recruiting and hiring we’d hire fewer Twentysomethings and more of our peers.

Conservatives hire conservatives. Liberals hire liberals.

When white people tend to hire white people we have a name for it. We call it "institutional racism." Institutional racism isn't deliberate discrimination. It's a simple fact of human nature that even the most liberal, fair-minded among us tend to feel more comfortable with others of our own race so when we recruit and hire we tend to recruit others who look like us.

So when companies let young people make most of the first contacts with job applicants it shouldn't be surprising when those companies skew younger and younger over time.

Let's call that "Institutional Ageism".

Achieving diversity requires conscious, deliberate, strategic action.

That’s why if companies want to achieve workforce diversity they have to put a more diverse team of screeners on the front lines of the hiring process.

Employers sometimes tell me they can’t find job applicants who can pass a pre-employment drug screen. I tell them they should hire the people who have been passing random drug tests for decades – the Fiftysomethings who are being fired by the hundreds of thousands by Corporate America.

“I’d love to hire some experience” they say, “but those down-sized Fiftysomethings don’t apply to my company.”

“They apply but you never get a chance to hire them because they get screened out early in the hiring process by Twentysomething HR people” I say.

I tell older job seekers that after they apply or interview with a young screener they should start copying older decision makers on everything that happens after that. Make sure some older decision makers see your resume and know about your interest in working for their company or organization. Don't leave it to chance or fairness or good intentions.

Every outcome is the result of a system that was perfectly designed to produce that outcome. Show me your company's hiring process and I can predict your company's workforce. If you want to hire some experienced workers who have been passing random drug tests for decades and know how to work, put some older workers on the front lines of your hiring process.

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