Talented Age

Age bias must be tackled or employers will miss out on talent says Patrick Thomson, senior programme manager, Centre for Ageing Better.

When we think of the disadvantages people face in the recruitment process, we might think of bias based on gender, race or sexuality. And rightly so – these are characteristics that all too often put people at a disadvantage when they’re looking for a job. But we are less likely to think about age – and that’s a huge problem. A 2019 survey found that 37 per cent of employees believed there was age discrimination in their workplace and our research has found that a third of over-50s think they’ve been turned down for a job because of their age. Now, our new report finds that many employers aren’t taking steps to tackle the issue because they don’t think it’s a problem in their organisation. This means that not only could many over-50s be unfairly disadvantaged in applying for jobs, many organisations could be missing out on the wealth of skills and experience that these workers bring.

Working with the Institute for Employment Studies, we spoke to 20 HR professionals and five recruitment and diversity specialists to understand employers’ perspectives on age-bias in the recruitment process. Despite many employers stating diversity and inclusion were important to them, few had strategies or approaches specifically aimed at making the recruitment process more diverse and inclusive in the context of age. Employers were more likely to believe that they needed to take immediate action on gender and racial diversity, and many analysed workforce and applicant data on those specific protected characteristics and measured these against broader diversity and inclusion strategies. But none of the employers or recruiters interviewed had a specific strategy to improve age diversity in their workforce because most said that age-bias wasn’t a problem.

Perceptions of age

But it was clear that those interviewed held a range of negative perceptions of older workers that could potentially influence the recruitment process. These included: older workers ‘not tending to want to work in junior roles’, ‘having poor IT skills’, being ‘more likely to have issues with their fitness levels’, and younger people being ‘more flexible to the needs of the business’ more ‘presentable’ for customer-facing roles.

We found that contrary to what many of those we interviewed believed, there are many possible opportunities for age-bias to creep into the recruitment process. Job descriptions which use ageist language, or use criteria that exclude older workers like specific qualifications; an emphasis on the subjective ‘cultural fit’ of candidates; unstructured interviews where different candidates are asked different questions – all can result in older candidates being unfairly disadvantaged. So too, of course, can the presence of ageist stereotypes in a workplace. At an organisational level, a lack of diversity strategies – or the exclusion of age from those strategies – can compound these issues, along with a poor use of data – for example making assumptions about age-diversity in a workplace without properly analysing workforce and recruitment data.

This worrying research comes at a particularly grim time for older workers. There are currently over 400,000 unemployed over-50s in the UK, and new analysis this week showed that this group are more than twice as likely as other age groups to be unemployed for at least two years. But even before the pandemic, it was clear that more could be done to make the most of the age shift in our workforce. Research has shown that more than 800,000 people aged 50 and over are not in work but would like to be, and that workers over 50 are half as likely to move jobs as someone under 50.

It isn’t only these workers who are losing out, but businesses too. Currently, over-50s make up a third of the workforce, and this is only set to increase as the UK’s population ages. Overlooking this pool of potential employees means shutting out a wealth of talent and experience, not to mention forgoing the benefits that an age-diverse team brings. Employers report that greater life experience makes older workers better placed to manage themselves and others in the workplace, and mixed-age teams can help solve complex problems by bringing together a mix of ideas, skills and experiences.

The way ahead

Our report lays out clear steps for employers committed to tackling age-bias in the recruitment process and ensuring they recruit a genuinely diverse workforce. These include:

  • Circulating job advertisements as widely as possible to ensure they are reaching people from a wide range of backgrounds
  • Considering the impact of recruitment processes on people from multiple under-represented groups, e.g. older women, people from ethnic minority backgrounds with disabilities
  • Using application processes that reduce explicit and implicit age cues, such as standardised application forms rather than CVs
  • Collecting and analysing the age profile of the current workforce as well as job applicants to evaluate whether job advertisements are attracting candidates of all ages. Report this to management boards in order to identify and improve under-representation
  • Structuring the interview process using multiple decision-makers, predefined questions and scoring mechanisms to mitigate the impact of potential age bias
  • Ensuring that the criteria against which cultural ‘fit’ will be assessed are transparent and clearly communicated to applicants
  • Recognising the importance of age-inclusivity explicitly and build a workplace culture that acknowledges contributions of people of all ages
  • Challenging any negative perceptions and assumptions made in the workplace about older workers and explicitly celebrate contributions of workers of all ages.

With the pandemic presenting huge challenges for workers, jobseekers and businesses, it has never been more important for employers to make sure they are genuinely recruiting the best person for the job – regardless of characteristics like gender, race, or age. This means putting in place robust strategies to tackle bias in the recruitment process. We hope our new report will be a useful tool for employers and recruiters to make the most of a diverse workforce in the months ahead.

We will be publishing more research on this topic in early 2021 looking at older workers own experience of the recruitment process as well as an innovate experiment exploring how language used in job ads can disadvantage different age groups. We will also be working with employers and recruiters to put this research into practice. If you have ideas or experiences that can help us to achieve this we would love to hear from you.

Find out more on the Good Recruitment for Older Workers (GROW) project here: https://www.ageing-better.org.uk/good-recruitment-older-workers-grow

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