Ageism popped up in headlines this summer when explosive news broke about ongoing litigation against IBM. In a deposition, a former vice president alleged that as many as 100,000 IBM workers were fired in recent years in an attempt to make the company seem more "cool" and "trendy" to incoming millennial and Gen Z workers.
Among other notable details in the reports, IBM was concerned about looking like "an old fuddy duddy organization" due in part to its "seniority mix." Spokespersons for IBM denied the charge in multiple media reports and stated that the company had "transitioned to a less labor-intensive business model and have divested some of our operations."
The story propelled ageism to the forefront of the tech news cycle, if only for a moment — highlighting an issue the World Health Organization has called widespread and insidious.
How common is ageism?
One in three people surveyed experienced ageism before age 45, according to a recent Fairygodboss poll of 1,000 people over 40. And respondents who had been subjected to ageism feared being "pushed out" of their jobs at a vastly higher rate than those who hadn't experienced ageism.
Ageism in the workplace hasn’t changed much since the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) was enacted, Pablo Orozco, associate attorney with Nilan Johnson Lewis, told HR Dive. While he hasn’t personally encountered companies replacing older workers to appear trendier, he noted to HR Dive in an email that, "companies are labeled as 'cool' if they provide innovative products or services that consumers like or if they make a positive difference in their spheres of influence." The age of the workers involved shouldn’t matter, he added.
As technology rises in prominence in the workplace, many assume older workers lack social media expertise or cannot perform positions that require a high level of computer expertise, Tom Scroggins, partner with Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, told HR Dive in an email.
"This can be a particular problem as millennials and even Generation Z members progress into management roles where they may have supervisory responsibilities over workers much older than them," Scroggins said. "These are the first two generations that have had the internet and mobile computing devices at their fingertips nearly all of their life. It would be very easy for them to fall into the trap of assuming that any worker much older than them is not capable of performing at a high level in a technologically advanced workplace."
Providing newer equipment, better leads or assignments or more opportunities for training and travel to younger workers can be perceived as ageism in the workplace. Comments about a worker’s tech savvy can contribute to a culture of ageism that is challenging to tolerate and overcome.
"Ageism can take many different forms in today’s workplace from discriminatory hiring practices, to ageist remarks, to company practices that unintentionally omit workers over a certain age," Georgene Huang, co-founder and CEO of Fairygodboss, told HR Dive. For example, when company sports teams are used for team bonding some workers may not feel included, Huang said.
Scroggins said he thinks few employers are overtly discriminating against employees based on age, but an effort to appeal to younger generations may have some trying to fill new and open positions with employees they think promote and portray a vibrant and energetic work culture, which may have little to do with getting the work done. "This can be a troublesome motivation for employers as it can be code speak for unlawful age discrimination," he said. "An employer trying to fill its ranks with hashtag social media influencers may be cooking a recipe for disaster. Intentionally trying to create a 'youthful' work force is the very essence of unlawful age discrimination."
Some suggest even non-company sponsored "after hours" events, like meeting at a local bar or restaurant, can create a culture of ageism. When younger members of the team assume a seasoned colleague wouldn’t be interested or comfortable socializing, it can set up a barrier based on age and experience.
Tim Garrett, labor and employment attorney with Bass, Berry & Sims writes there are many forms of ageism in the workplace. Typical stereotypes can include expecting an older employee to have a problem adjusting to the new computer system, believe they will be resistant to change or wondering how an older employee is going to "keep up" with a job’s demands. Many candidates view job postings that include language like "go-getter" or "high energy" as a signal the employer is looking for a younger hire.
Innovation without ageism
"An employer must recognize the implicit arrogance and stereotypes in believing that a "culture of innovation" necessarily consists only of a younger workforce," Garrett said.
Orozco agreed, "Innovation comes from empowering others, taking risks, and acting on ideas. None of these core concepts is tied to specific age groups."
Wary employers may seek to avoid discriminatory interview questions, offer additional learning opportunities for everyone and encourage mentorships between younger and older employees to better combat ageism, the Fairygodboss study found. Team building exercises and unconscious bias training for hiring managers can also help.
Companies generally want to avoid high turnover, Orozco added, and seasoned employees can hold critical historical knowledge. "Some of the industries with the highest turnover have many young employees and some of the most skilled and valuable employees are old."
Scroggins suggested training existing workers instead of heading straight to the open labor market. "Cross-training employees to spread skills from one employee to another can also produce tremendous benefits. Retaining an existing experienced employee is usually more cost-efficient than replacing them with someone new."
Whether subtle or overt, deliberate or unintentional, ageism is a costly mistake business can avoid with training, intention and a culture of inclusion.