How Age Discrimination in the Workplace Affects Company Culture

How Age Discrimination in the Workplace Affects Company Culture

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We’ve written about closing the gender pay gap and bringing social justice to the fore in company culture. But there’s another, less visible form of discrimination creeping through workforces across the nation: age discrimination.

Ageism is becoming increasingly common in organizations, especially those in tech industries based in Silicon Valley, where the median age of an employee is 30. Tech industry workers also often see a decline in their salaries and the number of jobs available to them once they turn 45.

Let’s just take a minute to sit with that number: Forty-five.

Here’s what age discrimination is and how it can affect your company legally and culturally.

What is age discrimination?

Age discrimination is the unfair treatment of someone older than 40 due to age.

What is the Age Discrimination in Employment Act?

Signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (or ADEA) forbids employment discrimination against anyone over 40 years old on the basis of age. This act applies to all parts of the employment process.

How does the ADEA protect workers?

The ADEA is a worker protection act and allows employees to bring charges against their employers if they believe they are being discriminated against on the basis of age.

For example, in April 2019, an age discrimination lawsuit against the international firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (try saying that five times fast) earned class-action status in federal court. The plaintiffs in the case alleged that PwC discriminated against older applicants. How? By recruiting mainly on college campuses and school-affiliated job sites.

This is a big deal. Here’s why.

Recruiting on college campuses is common practice for lots of organizations. Recruiting on college campuses in itself isn’t ageist or illegal. But it is a form of age discrimination if open job listings are made only accessible to younger candidates — like Millennials and Gen Z.

The outcome of this lawsuit has the potential to change the way companies, like yours, hire new talent moving forward.

But age discrimination extends beyond hiring. Google and IBM also faced claims of age discrimination after laying off a large number of older employees in 2017 — in what some called an attempt to make their workforces younger.

How age discrimination affects company culture

After looking at these cases, it’s understandable that some older employees live in fear of being replaced by younger hires. This uncertainty hinders their employee experience — which has a hugely negative impact on the psychological safety of your workplace. Here’s how different types of age discrimination affect a company’s culture:

Age discrimination in hiring

We know by now that age bias is a massive problem in hiring. Why is that a problem for you? By excluding an entire generation of candidates, you’re limiting your talent pool and diversity, too.

Older employees have years of experience to share with their company. And they also tend to have networks they can leverage for business opportunities. So stay open-minded in hiring. And always, make sure you consider a person based on their qualifications and not their age.

Age discrimination in firing

Wrongful termination due to age is not only illegal. It also ruins company culture by spreading fear and uncertainty.

So what’s the cost? Your company culture definitely takes a hit. But from a bottom-line perspective, when your culture tanks, employee satisfaction goes with it — and employees of all ages start looking for the door. When retention drops, so does your productivity as your teams shift their energy toward recruiting and onboarding, rather than the work you need them to be doing.

How to avoid age discrimination in the workplace

  • Be transparent with lay-offs and hiring practices. Nothing feeds fear more than unannounced firings or questionable new hires. Trust is the core of all great organizations. Your employees of all ages deserve open communication, with no penalties, to develop trust.
  • Avoid labeling employees the “mom” or “dad” of the office. Every office has at least one — and some “Office Moms” or “Sales Dads” love their nicknames. But this can cause more harm than fun. Use your best judgment on nicknames.
  • Represent an all-inclusive workforce in your design choices. Take a hard look at the sample imagery on your website. If everyone in your photos is white, skinny, and 25-34 years old, you’ve got a representation problem. Ensure your brand imagery is inclusive of all ages, genders, and racial groups. Details like this make a world of difference when you’re hiring or promoting your brand.
  • Embrace continuous feedback. An “always on” feedback system ensures your employees have a voice in the company. It alerts your managers on any issues or suggestions employees have to improve company culture and helps drive employee-centric decisions.
  • Recognize your employees often. Consistent recognition makes your employees feel valued. It also lets them know that the work they’re doing matters — and it fuels their sense of belonging in the company.