Ageism is the act of discriminating against an individual or group on the basis of their age and despite the introduction of anti-ageism legislation, it continues to exist in the workplace today.

Ageism can be either direct, as in someone being treated less favourably than another due to their age, or indirect, as in a job ad that discourages older applicants from applying (i.e. describing the company culture as ‘vibrant’ or ‘high energy’).

This article looks at the ongoing problem of ageism in the workplace, including the costs for both seniors and for business and offers suggestions on what business leaders can do to purge ageism from their company and culture.

Is ageism justified?

A survey by New Zealand Seniors found that almost four in five seniors (79%) think ageism is prevalent in the workforce these days.

But is it justified? Do older workers really perform less well at their jobs than their younger colleagues? The answer is, of course, a resounding no.

In fact, older workers typically perform better at their jobs than younger people. They are also more conscientious, have lower absenteeism and higher retention rates and better social and management skills.

What are the costs of ageism?

There are a variety of costs associated with ageism, both to employers and to employees.

Employers who allow ageism to exist in their workplace are effectively sidelining a large portion of the workforce at a time when the population is aging and there are less younger job applicants to choose from.

They are also missing out on being able to tap into the huge talent pool of knowledge and experience that the mature age market offers.

And if ageism is extensive enough in their organisation, they are also likely to face the risk of a costly workplace discrimination claim at some point.

Ageism is very bad for business and it’s particularly bad for those being discriminated against.
Employees exposed to ageism are often prevented from excelling at their jobs due to misconceptions about their capabilities.

Older job applicants are often discounted before even getting to interview stage purely on the basis of their age.

And ageism can have serious mental and physical health consequences for those being discriminated against. This can include increased stress levels, a reduced desire to live a healthy lifestyle, impaired recovery from illness and a shortened life span.

What are the signs of ageism?

Some common signs of age discrimination in the workplace include:

  • Learning opportunities being automatically offered to younger employees rather than older ones.
  • Older workers being assigned tedious tasks and being overlooked for more challenging assignments.
  • Not being entitled to time off for family commitments because they don’t have young children at home.
  • Being passed over for raises and promotions.

So how can you combat ageism?

If you’re an employer concerned about whether your organisation could be inadvertently fostering ageism, the following are simple steps you can take to increase age diversity in your workplace:

  • Examine your company culture, practices and policies to identify outdated assumptions about older workers in your recruitment practices, company website and employee attitudes.
  • Avoid age discrimination in the hiring process by removing discriminatory language from your job descriptions, never asking applicants for their date of birth and standardising interview forms so everyone is asked the same questions, regardless of age.
  • As well as race, religion, disability and gender, include age in your diversity and inclusion programs and educate your employees about age discrimination in the workplace.
  • Rather than basing rewards and promotions on tenure, base them on performance and value to the company. And offer the same training opportunities to all employees, regardless of their age or experience level.
  • Put a zero-tolerance anti-discrimination and harassment policy in place and inform everyone in your organisation about it, particularly new employees.
  • Remain vigilant and watch for social cues amongst employees. Jokes about old age, senior moments and the like, while often said in jest, can be signs of a bias toward older workers.
  • Cultivate open lines of communication to build trust and break the generational boundaries that can form unintentionally.
  • Implement reverse mentorship programs where younger workers benefit from an older mentor’s experience and in return help them in areas they may not be as familiar with, such as new technologies. This also helps to develop empathy and reduce unconscious bias.

The best way to combat ageism in the workplace is to work towards creating a multi-generational culture that rejects age stereotypes, recognises ability over age and enhances the connections between employees rather than the differences.

Doing this will positively impact your organisation’s growth, retention rates, engagement and innovation and help drive your business forward. It will also ensure that you always have access to the most talented employees in the marketplace, regardless of whether they’re 17 or 70.