Age discrimination in executive recruitment

Discrimination is never an acceptable form of selection behaviour although based on some recent research it would appear that some types are more acceptable to recruiters than others. A couple of recent surveys undertaken by TCMO, a career management organisation, seems to indicate that age discrimination at executive level is the most dominant type of discrimination in senior management recruitment. Link to the surveys are included at the bottom of this post.

The initial survey was not particularly clear on whether it is older managers being discriminated against because of their seniority or aspirant younger managers seeking their first senior management appointment. Some further analysis is provided in their more recent survey with additional gender related insights provided.  It also must be stated that they are surveys, and that being surveys they are a collection of perceptions of treatment rather than totally objective evidence on whether age discrimination is actually taking place. There may be some contributors who are able to support their opinions with something concrete although in most cases it may well be more suspicion based. However, perceptions are a reality to those who feel they have been discriminated against so we have to treat the exercise seriously and at face value. Recruiters also do not help matters by aligning to the growing trend of refusing to explain the basis of decisions. This lack of transparency is bound to breed suspicion in candidates, more so in the final stages of a selection process.

The initial survey suggested that nearly 46% of people at an interview stage felt that had been discriminated against on the basis of age, usurping gender at 21% by quite a wide margin. This pattern of age discrimination being the most prevalent form was repeated in the other survey questions to a lesser amount but it was still the dominant type.

As with other types of discrimination age discrimination is illegal, and as the summary comments rightly points out it is important to follow the rules to avoid potential penalties and corporate reputational damage. Perhaps it should also be added that not only should the rules be followed but they should be seen to be followed. In other words more transparency in the hiring process and less litigation ‘risk avoidance’ actions.

It does feel something of a stretch to believe that anywhere near 46% of recruiting managers and Human Resources staff have an inherent age prejudice, although the current domination of agency involvement in the hiring process might well be a problem. HR people are professionals who generally have a sound understanding of the law, exercise good judgement and usually provide sound advice and guidance to hiring managers. The more established recruitment agencies may also fit into this category although the volumes of start-up agencies entering the hiring industry must inevitably attract individuals who are far more interested in generating commissions than in providing sound customer service and a fair and transparent filtering and selection process. It must be frustrating to the truly professional agents to see masses of new entrants with a limited or absent pedigree in recruitment entering the industry and arguably tarnishing its reputation with cowboy practices and other reputation damaging behaviours.

The first survey covered later stages of the recruitment process although it would be more than interesting to see results for the initial stages of recruitment including the CV filtering mechanisms used by agency staff and corporate recruiters. We can only guess at these at this time although I suspect the numbers of recruiters requiring a declaration of age, for whatever reason, as an integral element of the application process will do little to allay suspicions.

Age prejudice is also a major change management challenge. The demographics of many Western states suggest an ageing profile which many organisations have yet to take on board. In 2016 it may still be fairly easy to recruit people with a broadly younger profile but in the coming decades it will likely be far more difficult and probably damaging to an organisation’s reputation to avoid hiring older people. It is interesting to note that skill shortages are still promoted as a reason for lower productivity and yet we see limited enthusiasm by businesses for hiring and retraining older people. There may now be less propensity to ‘let go’ of older people simply because of their age but there still seems to be a perception that age is a barrier to learning.

Many organisations seem to adopt a policy of employing older people but not actually hiring them, especially in more senior positions. A sixty year old can be a prime minister and a seventy year old an American president but an over fifty year old being recruited into a middle or senior management position in business seems to be a completely different proposition. This perception of people in their fifties simply looking for roles that allow them to ‘coast into retirement’ is going to have to change, especially as state retirement ages are heading for seventy in the coming decades. Discriminating against the very groups that are likely to be the backbone of your customer base will not be good for business and the sooner this is recognised the better.

In searching for some legitimacy for these unwritten hiring policies it may well be that older people are staying with organisations for extended periods are effectively ‘blocking’ progress for younger managers who aspire to more senior positions (the career version of ‘bed blockers’?). Perhaps by filtering out older candidates recruiters believe that they are ‘levelling’ the ground for candidates in other age groups. Then there is the view that older workers are more expensive than younger ones. Without sifting through volumes of data, this would nonetheless make some sense given that on the whole older workers are more likely to have progressed into higher paying senior positions. Thus the premise that on average they are probably more expensive may well be true although why it should be used as a generic reason for filtering out candidates for what are likely to be roles with a specified salary band is unclear.

Hard evidence of discrimination of any nature tends to be difficult to come by. We know it does exist but the legalistic nature of today’s hiring conventions appears to have increased the difficulty of promoting transparency during the recruitment process. Candidates are often required to complete on-line surveys during the application part of the process recording age, ethnicity, gender and many other potential discriminatory attributes. Positioned as a method of ensuring that there is no overall discrimination they are then asked to ‘trust’ that these details are not used in the initial filtering process. If an interview follows hiring managers are instructed to be very careful about what they write down about candidates, and if positions are not offered the reasons given often rank amongst the blandest of the bland. ‘Another candidate was better qualified’ or perhaps deemed more ‘suitable’ but no actual analysis of why ‘X’ was preferred over ‘Y’. How exactly was ‘X’ more qualified than ‘Y’? The reasons for a lack of detail are no doubt associated with a lack of time and an unwillingness to invite a challenge. This may be entirely reasonable from a hirer perspective but it is unlikely to promote a sense of respect or trust among prospective candidates. If anything the recruitment process is even more opaque than it was a few decades ago. The discriminatory practices that were once more overt seem to have gone underground and may well be masked by the implications of fifty years of anti-discrimination legislation. Perhaps the law of unintended consequences is in force.

Steps to combat age and other forms of discrimination are typically framed in terms of legal and regulatory frameworks. This is understandable in that politicians react to the pressures of social change by introducing laws which recognise that the boundaries of what is and is not acceptable have shifted. They need to be seen to ‘do something’ and that ‘doing’ generally manifests itself as a law, or set of laws that redefine the rules under which we must all operate. Laws help define the rules but do not necessarily change essential behaviours. Discrimination moves out of sight and hearing often hidden behind spurious and uninformed prejudices, inter –generational rivalry or basic misunderstandings. It is only when fundamental cultural change has been attained can a perception of fairness and reasonableness be achieved. When we look at age discrimination the story is really about what each generation has to offer. It is often presented in generalised terms: older people offer experience while younger workers provide enthusiasm and perhaps more technology literacy. The reality will differ from person to person but even within the context of generalisations it is clear that the obvious answer to any recruitment challenge is to hire the best person for the job and don’t allow a general perception of an age group to evolve into a prejudice. Older workers can be enthusiastic and just as technically aware and younger ones need to be given a chance to progress, and perhaps be allowed to make the odd error.

Beyond legislation the steps that socially responsible organisations might include the following:

  • Promoting retraining initiatives particularly targeting older age groups.
  • Increasing transparency publishing an age profile of current employees and those hired in the previous years.
  • Encouraging mentor schemes, pairing older with younger workers.
  • Developing and issuing educational notes for recruiters and hiring managers on the implications of a steadily ageing population and what that means for the workplace.
  • Actively promoting the concept of age diversity and ‘balanced teams’.

The TCMO study clearly suggests that there is still a problem of age discrimination in the hiring process despite several decades of legislation and its application. More laws are unlikely to be the answer. It will be far more helpful to work with what we have and promote age education and diversity through increased transparency and carefully designed anti-discrimination initiatives. Senior hiring managers must also step-up and ensure that their own decisions are an example of the sort of behaviours they expect others in the organisation to follow.

What shadow does your leadership cast?


TCMO Research: Discriminating Executives

TCMO Research: Age, gender and flexi-working discrimination at executive level

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