How Firms Can Avoid Stereotypes, Complaints About Older Workers

August 14, 2009

Age discrimination will be reduced if employers base personnel decisions on job-relevant requirements and focus on the abilities of those able to perform the work and not on how old they are, says Michael Campion, a professor of management at Purdue University and a leading authority on employment discrimination.

Concerned by the rapidly rising increase of age discrimination complaints— nearly 30 percent last year, more than any other type of bias claim— the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission held public hearings last month to learn more about the impact of age stereotyping and Campion was among the invited testifiers.

He attributed the spike in age discrimination complaints partly to widespread layoffs and downsizings, which may have an adverse impact upon older workers, as well as common stereotypes which classify them as being more costly, harder to train, less flexible, more likely to quit, resistant to change and lack the energy of their younger counterparts.

These negative stereotypes have been shown to influence employment decisions, often resulting in older workers being among the first to be let go and the last to gain reemployment.

“Stereotypes are a natural consequence of how people’s brains categorize information about the world around them.” Campion explained. “So it’s not surprising that age stereotypes exist within the workplace. However, not all of them are accurate.”

Campion told the EEOC panel the impact of age stereotypes on employment opportunities for older persons would be diminished if employers, when faced with downsizing decisions, focus attention on the individual job-related characteristics of employees.

“Employment decisions should always begin with an analysis of the work to be done, and the knowledge, skills and human attributes required to perform that work,” he said.

Once job-related standards have been developed, employers should use a reliable and consistently applied procedure to evaluate employees against those standards, regardless of employees’ age, he said.

However, for the most part, employers do not base their decisions on a solid analysis of the future work to be accomplished, Campion pointed out. “Rather they are likely to ask ‘Who can we let go?’ and often simply compare employees to each other, which increases the effects of stereotypes,” he said.

Campion said there has been less human resourc focus on preventing discrimination due to pre-existing perceptions on age than to preventing race and gender discrimination. Those who do the hiring should be made aware about the existence and consequences of age stereotypes and organizations should monitor the impact of employment decisions on age, like they do for race and gender, and take action when disparities occur, he told the panel.

However, not all age-related stereotypes are negative. Older workers are often considered more stable, dependable, honest, trustworthy, loyal, committed to the job and less likely to miss work or leave the job, noted Campion.

As for the widespread assumption that workers’ performances decline as they get older, Campion said industrial and organizational psychologists, who have extensively researched age stereotypes in the workplace, have produced numerous studies showing job performance does not decline with age.

Older workers have a lot going for them that make them desirable to retain on the workforce, Campion said. “For example, because of their experience, older workers tend to find more efficient ways of performing their jobs. And they are more helpful to their colleagues and exhibit better organizational citizenship,” he said.

“However, most every stereotype has a grain of truth to it,” Campion acknowledged. “The problem is that everyone within the group tends to be labeled by that stereotype, whether or not it is true of them.”

He concedes that older employees often do cost more and not just in wages but in benefits as well. “They tend to use their health benefits more than younger ones,” he said.

Even that is not always true, though. “Actually, it is surprising how common it is for companies to pay more for younger workers, primarily due to market factors driving up entry-level wages,” he said.

Also, research has shown that older persons with the same or similar qualifications as younger workers receive lower ratings in job interviews and performance appraisals.

Not only are older workers among the first to be laid off, in part due to stereotypes about them, but they face those stereotypes again when they look for another job. “Research on reemployment shows that older workers who have been laid off take longer to find new jobs than younger workers. It also reveals that older workers are less likely to be reemployed and that they generally do not recover the wages rates they had before being laid off.”

“Employers should recognize that probably most people hold age stereotypes, consciously or unconsciously, and they negatively influence employment decisions,” he said.

The EEOC will use Campions’ testimony and others to consider proposals for regulatory and legislative action.

Source: The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology
Distributed by Newswise

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