How to tackle workplace ageism

As employment figures show a rise in vacancies, but also an increase in long-term unemployment, and amid fears older workers may be more likely to have problems finding a new job, Thom Dennis of Serenity in Leadership outlines how to tackle ageism in the recruitment process and beyond.

age bias, ageism at a workplace


As lockdown restrictions are easing and many businesses may be choosing to ease back into office life, D&I experts are increasingly concerned about how age discrimination, or ageism, has been exacerbated due to the pandemic. While older workers are more likely to be affected by Covid and to have been shielding, younger workers have also been hard hit by Covid, with many losing their jobs, particularly in the first wave of the pandemic.

Moreover, Office for National Statistics figures show over 50s were the most likely to be made redundant in the last quarter of 2020 and research shows it can take longer for them to get back to work once made redundant.

The latest employment figures show a slight fall in unemployment between March and May compared to the previous quarter and redundancy levels down to pre-pandemic levels, but that is expected to rise as the furlough scheme tapers off. Moreover, despite an increase in job vacancies, long-term unemployment continues to rise – with long-term unemployment at its highest in five years and at its highest level since 2014 for older workers.

Tony Wilson, Director of the Institute for Employment Studies, commented: “There are now more unemployed people than there are those still on full furlough, and with the economy creating jobs we need to be doing far better at helping unemployed people to fill them. If we don’t, then we’re risking a two-speed recovery with those who lost their jobs last year being left behind.”

The problems older workers face getting back to work after redundancy may be due to a variety of reasons, including perceived age discrimination in the jobs market. A survey earlier this year by found 44% of older workers had experienced age discrimination at work and 48% during the recruitment process. 40% felt they were side-lined or left out of discussions at work and 24% said they had experienced discrimination when it comes to promotion.

Here Thom Dennis outlines some practical advice on how to tackle ageism at work.

Signs of ageism at work

What are the signs of ageism in the workplace? Much of the problem is due to unconscious bias. Opportunities for training or more exciting projects may be offered solely to younger colleagues, for instance.  Age-related comments or jokes made about colleagues are commonplace. Many older workers are actively excluded from meetings or activities and overlooked for pay rises or promotions.  A common assumption is that an older colleague won’t be tech-savvy and find it harder to learn new skills and are counting down the days to retirement.

Equally, ageism can go the other way and assumptions are made that younger workers are lazy, ignorant and entitled. Some younger colleagues aren’t given time off during the Christmas and summer holidays because they don’t have young children at home.

So what can we do to tackle ageism?

1.Recognise stereotyping and dealing with it through training. Stereotypes affect inclusivity, diversity, motivation and productivity and can also make your company open to legal challenges.  Age is not a factor that determines capability.  Training is the key to all aspects of diversity and inclusivity, including ageism, but leaders must be on board and training requires participation from all employees, including management and stakeholders.

As we have found with race awareness, unconscious bias and ethics training, so with ageism: using a tick-in-the-box approach with compulsory one-time or annual short immersions has little or no positive effect and often produces the absolute reverse effect of what was hoped for.

2. Have a detailed ageism policy and implement it. This should include a clear definition of ageism, examples, reporting procedures and grievance procedures. Staff should be cognisant of any form of age discrimination at work and be aware of what to do if they are either a witness or subjected to it. Check all recruitment policies, employment terms and conditions training, training, promotions and dismissal policies and identify and rectify any areas of age bias. Check your policies with a wide spectrum of your workforce so you surface bias in their construction.

3. Review the recruitment process. Avoid words like ‘energetic’ or ‘tech savvy’ to describe the ideal candidate. Focus on general words which convey a candidate’s work ethic such as ‘passionate’, ‘dedicated’ or ‘proactive’. Consider the information you collect from applicants and evaluate whether all of this information is truly necessary. For instance, do you really need to know the year an applicant finished secondary school, or would this information pander to unconscious bias?

4. Value loyalty and skills.  Research shows us that 45 – 54-year-old employees remain at the job twice as long as their 25 – 34-year-old counterparts; and 67% of workers aged 40 – 65 want to keep working after 66.  Creating the right environment and opportunities drives loyalty.  Encourage managers to value skills and how they match the role, not age. There is much wisdom that comes with experience of life, wisdom that adds pragmatism, realism as well as creativity and healthy challenges.

5. Ensure fair opportunities and promotions. Make sure there is a personal development plan for all employees to maximise their potential and opportunities by recognising abilities regardless of age.  Hiscox found that 51 years old is the age most workers believe they are likely to experience workplace discrimination.

6. Encourage a collaborative workplace culture between staff members of different ages to develop inclusivity and strengthen bonds between all age groups.  Having a mentoring programme in the workplace can benefit all generations, as can pairing two colleagues of different ages to work on tasks together to boost integration, creativity and productivity.

7. Watch for bias-led, unacceptable social cues such as jokes about age.  What seems like banter can lead to isolation, poor mental health and grounds for age discrimination lawsuits.

8. Choose age-inclusive company social activities. Ensure all meetings and company social activities are fully inclusive and encourage all to attend.

9. Create an open-door policy. Having a safe space work environment where employees can voice their concerns about ageism in the workplace creates positive communication.

10. Check your company collateral and visual displays. Displaying pictures of all age ranges, such as ‘about us’ on your website can attract both new talent and customers who may have been put off otherwise to help break down the barriers that sometimes form inadvertently or overtly.

11. Be an agent of change and use your voice.  Role model the right behaviours and call out the wrong ones. Encourage individual responsibility and a speak-out workplace culture. Make sure you check once in a while that you yourself are not falling down the pitfalls of reinforcing stereotypes.

12. Encourage diversity. Not only is maintaining a diverse team fair and the right thing to do, but hiring people from all ages, as well as races, religions, genders and backgrounds is proven to improve productivity, cohesion, creativity and team focus.

*Thom Dennis is CEO at D&I experts Serenity in Leadership.

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