Call for more action to address ageism in the recruitment process

A webinar hosted by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research showed a big divide between older jobseekers’ perceptions of age bias in the recruitment process and employers’ apparent lack of awareness of any problems.

age bias, ageism at a workplace


Older workers’ perception of age bias in the recruitment process is not taken seriously by employers, a webinar hosted by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research heard today.

he webinar, chaired by Kim Chaplain from the Centre for Ageing Better, brought together three different studies – one of employers, one of older jobseekers and one of the language used in job adverts – and highlighted the gulf between candidates’ perceptions and employers’ interest in addressing them.

A study by the Institute for Employment Studies found age bias is not seen as a priority issue by employers and when they did think about it they were more worried about a lack of younger workers. Most thought they already had an age diverse workforce and some said they would only take action if there was a big age discrimination case or something similar. Those who did collect data on age didn’t really analyse it. When it comes to diversity, gender and ethnicity are the areas most employers are focusing any immediate action on, said the IES.

The IES’ recommendations include that employers use a wider range of advertising methods, more photos of older workers and more channels that are relevant to older workers and that they address decision makers’ attitudes and create an inclusive environment.

Workers’ perceptions of age bias in the recruitment process

Johnny Runge from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research focused on older workers’ experience of the recruitment process. Thirty-six per cent felt they would be disadvantaged in the recruitment process due to their age. Fifteen per cent had experienced age discrimination; 18% had been told they looked too old and 16% had been told the recruiter was looking for someone younger. Many people were sure age discrimination existed, but did not have definitive proof of it and research studies where cvs with different ages on them were sent out back this up.

Older workers found template rejection letters impersonal and said their success rate was lower as they got older. They were frustrated that they rarely got to the interview stage to address stereotypes. Some had concealed their age or ‘dumbed down’ their cv, but felt this only delayed the process of discrimination until the interview stage.

At interview, many said the panel was made up only of young people which immediately made them feel on the back foot. Some had faced questions which showed age bias such as about their plans for retirement or about their physical capabilities. Other general stereotypes were that they were less adaptable, too independent, too experienced, a threat to managers, would want higher pay, were less ambitious and had reduced mental and/or physical capabilities. People described the interview process as ‘soul destroying’ and ‘frustrating’ or as the first time they had thought of themselves as old, which was a blow to their self-confidence.

There was evidence that some older workers were being more selective about job opportunities due to their perception of age bias. They checked job advertisements for examples of bias. Most did give their age and felt it was better to be upfront and honest in order to “manage expectations” when it came to the interview.

Runge’s recommendations include that employers pay more attention to the framing of job adverts; that they get rid of the need for a full employment history on application forms; that there is more awareness that people do not have to disclose their age on their cvs; that interview panels are age diverse; that interviewers avoid assumptions and stereotypes; and that employers give better feedback to unsuccessful applicants.

Job adverts

Georgie Bremner from the Government’s Behavioural Insights Team reported on a study into the language used in job adverts. Candidates had to rate mock jobs based on the language used, for instance, terms like ‘energetic’, ‘innovative’, ‘technologically savvy’, ‘recent graduate’, specifications about experience [for instance, three-five years’ experience] and so forth. They were also asked whether including information about benefits such as flexible working and pensions and a line about Diversity and Inclusion would attract older workers.

While older workers were not so much put off by terms such as ‘energetic’, they were annoyed at terms such as ‘recent graduates’ and specified years of experience.  They were also motivated by benefits such as flexible working and by Diversity and Inclusion statements.  The study’s recommendations include that employers should focus on words linked to skills and behaviour rather than personality, for instance, programming skills instead of ‘technologically savvy’; that they should stress any employee benefits; and include a D & I statement.

The Centre for Ageing Better said the studies were just the first phase of its work on ageism in the recruitment process. They are now looking to engage with employers about their recruitment practices and, with the Chartered Institute for Professional Development and REC, have launched a toolkit to help them spot and address bias.

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