How Age Bias Hurts Business

Posted Wednesday, May 16th, 2012| Comments (7) rule
Never mind legal bills; there’s a bigger threat to the bottom line
About Jackie James  About Sharon McKechnie About Elyssa Besen
Jacquelyn B. James, PhD
Director of Research
Sloan Center on Aging & Work
Phone: 617.552.2860
Sharon McKechnie, PhD
Assistant Professor of Management
Emmanuel College
Phone: 617.975.9422
Elyssa Besen
Doctoral Research Assistant
Sloan Center on Aging & Work
Phone: 617.552.1354

These days, people who wouldn’t dream of making racial and ethnic slurs can be heard agreeing with ageist comments and laughing at jokes about older people.

The workplace is not free of these attitudes. According to a 2009 survey of workers and job seekers between the ages of 55 and 70, 43 percent of those who were currently seeking work or who had retired because they could not find work said the main problem was “they could not find an employer who would hire someone their age.” Nearly a quarter of all charges brought to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last year claimed discrimination on the basis of age. Nevertheless, ageism—discrimination on the basis of age—is a diversity issue that employers in the United States are only beginning to understand.

Certainly employers worry about avoiding legal action by older workers whom they lay off or pass up for promotion. But are they thinking deeply about the impact that the perception of bias might have on their employees generally—even those who don’t sue? A recent study that we conducted at Boston College’s Sloan Center on Aging & Work suggests they should. (The results will be published in the June 2012 issue of the Journal of Managerial Psychology.)

We wondered, does the perception of age bias in the workplace have an impact on employees’ motivation or sense of engagement in their jobs? To answer this question, we surveyed more than 4,000 retail workers (ranging in age from 18 to 94) in three regions of the United States.

Studying perceptions of age bias in the workplace is quite a challenge; employers are understandably reluctant to allow researchers to ask direct questions about actual experiences of age bias. Instead we asked respondents the extent to which they agreed with the statement, “Workers age 55 and older are just as likely to be promoted as younger workers.” We interpreted disagreement with that statement as indirect evidence of perceived age bias. We also probed perceptions of older workers’ capabilities for promotion, by asking the extent to which employees agreed with statements about older workers’ flexibility, ability to adapt to new technology, interest in training, and eagerness for promotion—traits deemed to be important for productive work.

Age bias can be intentional or unintentional. Our study tested the hypothesis that the difference between the two matters in terms of the extent to which bias is seen as fair or unfair, and thus the extent to which the perception of bias might affect work motivation.

For example, if employees believe that older workers should step aside and allow younger employees to move up, seeing older workers passed over for promotions should strike them as fair, and their sense of engagement and motivation at work should not diminish. Since all age bias is discriminatory, we refer to this phenomenon as perceived unintentional discrimination.

Similarly, employees who believe that older workers generally are not worthy of promotions because they lack flexibility, the capacity to adapt to new technology, interest in training, and eagerness for promotions should consider it fair for older workers as a group to be passed over for promotions. This, too, we reasoned, is a perception of unintentional bias that would not be likely to depress work engagement.

In contrast, if employees view older workers as a group as both capable and eager for promotions that are denied, the bias these employees observe would be perceived intentional discrimination, and its effect should be to decrease work engagement.

One result of our study surprised us. As we expected, the survey responses of employees of all ages who perceived that workers age 55 and older were less likely to be promoted than younger workers showed these employees to be less engaged in their work than those who did not perceive such discrimination. Also as expected, the perception of unintentional discrimination was more strongly related to lower employee engagement among older workers than younger workers. Our hypothesis did not prepare us for the finding that the perception of intentional discrimination was actually more strongly related to lower employee engagement among younger workers than older workers.

In practical terms, the perception of discrimination, whether intentional or unintentional, against older workers across age groups creates a difficult environment for managers. Perceptions of age bias in promotion decisions seem to make employees less likely to go that extra mile, even those who believe such bias is fair.
Managers can take steps to alleviate this kind of workplace stress. Recent research in management science yields the following recommendations:

  • develop the ability to recognize stereotyping when it happens
  • avoid basing any decisions—especially those related to layoffs—on age
  • provide diversity training with age in the mix
  • use older workers to their competitive advantage

Our research shows why taking steps like these not only keep companies out of court but are good for business in every way.

7 responses to “How Age Bias Hurts Business”

  1. Linda S. Banks says:

    Age Bias, is one of the most common forms of suttle discrimination in Corporate America today. It’s often hidden in unspoken behavioral nuances. Managers and Supervisors, don’t come out directly and say, oh I think I’ll give this very visible, high level project to the younger co-worker. They often make the decision behind closed doors about who get’s which projects and why. Many times they don’t consider that the older worker may have more knowledge, skill sets and connections with other departments. Management decides who they want to groom and give upward mobility to. By doing this they contirbute to lowering the moral of older employees as well as
    placing limits on their capabilities and steretyping them. This can lead to not getting the best performance from both the newer and the older person!

  2. Joel Reaser PhD says:

    There is another aspect to this: employers in the near future will have to re-focus much of their recruiting and retention efforts toward older workers. Take the Federal government as an example. They employ about 1.8 percent of the civilian workforce. They have approximately 50,000 retirements per year (OPM). Assuming a level head count, they need to find younger replacements for those 50,000. The issue is that the demographics are that there on only 168,000 people who will be added annually to the entire US workforce in the core 25-54 age cohort (BLS). As unemployment eases, the crunch for all employers will be on. All employers will need to be looking at the older 55+ cohort for sustaining the talent they need – and they will need to deal with age discrimination effectively in order to be successful or even survive.

  3. Philomena Morrissey Satre says:

    My speciality of work is Diversity and Inclusion. We have added Aging to our diversity strategy. We focus our effots on supporting team members through all ages and stages of life. Many of the comments above are compliance focused. However to create a culture of change and celebrate the Boomer generation its all about actions and messaging. We have a Boomers Network that helps support our team members who are 45 and over. The network focused on career development support and netoworking. They are active in community outreach and help us recruit more Boomers to our organziation. We have launched a Graduate Certificate in Leadership and encouraged our Boomers to return to school and keep on learning with the support of Tuition Reimbusement. If our Boomer team members feel valued, we will retain them, they will tell their freinds and famuily to work for our organziation and bank with us too!

  4. This article was definitely an eye opener for me – I’d never really thought too much about how discrimination might occur with older people looking for jobs.

    The smart employer would see this as an opportunity – there is a pretty big untapped pool of skills and experience just waiting to be tapped into here.

  5. Stephanie Fenwick says:

    I work in higher education with adults who are returning to school to finish undergraduate degrees. Our students range in age from 25-70, and one of the classes I teach is Adult Development and Learning. We structure a number of “life-stage” activities where students get a chance to dialogue about values, goals, influences, etc. in their particular phase of life. It’s been interesting to me to listen to the dialogue back and forth between older and younger students with some “joking” that undergirds what James, McKechnie, & Besen (2012) describe as perceived unintentional discrimination and what I see as a deep cultural bias towards the aged. I really liked Philomena’s comment about her work which facilitates a “culture of change and celebration.” It made me think of deepening the life stage activities with some focused discussion about this topic,using some of the above ideas. Appreciated this article and the subsequent comments.

  6. All is fair. Well, that would be most people say. But for me, as long as the person is qualified for the promotion regardless of their age, then so be it. If they can still function the same as anybody, give it to them.

  7. Bytelaunch says:

    Most high-tech employers would likely deny that age discrimination is an issue at their company. But many IT workers over 50 beg to differ, saying they have experienced age bias or know someone who has.

    The bias can take several forms, they say. Their salaries might stagnate. They might have few or no opportunities for advancement. They might not be included in training and professional development programs. And they could be the first to be laid off and the last to be hired.

    Thanks for sharing.