Age Discrimination — Not Part of a Sustainable Growth Strategy

Age discrimination is alive and well. There. I said it. Believe it or not, there is a law against this sort of practice. Yet, by and large, it goes undetected and unenforced. It reminds me of that FCC law that went into effect several years ago, prohibiting TV programs from broadcasting commercials at a louder volume than the program itself. A lot of good that did. I’m finding myself doing what my grandpa did when I was a kid – mute the commercials.

I wish I could mute the hiring executives who insist on hiring sales reps or marketing managers younger than 40. What’s the matter with prospective employees who are 40 or older? Is 40 when the warranty expires? Is it akin to pro football or baseball, in which many players over 30 are deemed high-risk damaged goods?

Let’s step back and look at some of the misguided reasons why hiring companies continue to engage in age discrimination.

  1. Concerns over cultural fit — I was told that the average age at my software company client’s headquarters is 29. Well, of course, we all know that it’s impossible for a 48-year-old to fit in, thrive, and interact constructively amongst younger peers. Unbelievable! Every sales organization I’ve ever managed included a healthy mix of twenty-somethings, thirty-somethings, forty-somethings, fifty-somethings, and some with sixty-somethings. Not only did they all manage to play nice in the sandbox together, but they all brought to the table a fresh blend of perspectives, insight and recommendations. And yes, they all performed equally well.
  1. Concerns of being overqualified – Oh no, we don’t dare hire people with rich experience and wisdom! This concern is usually code for, “Your 50-year-old candidate may be highly qualified for the role, but he’s bound not to be coachable and will likely bring plenty of baggage, including all his nasty habits ingrained over the years.” It seems as though these hiring executives prefer a subservient, moldable ball of clay over a fine wine. The other reason for this concern stems from hiring executives’ belief that no one in their 40s or 50s would really want to pursue the position and stay in it. Funny thing, though – most 40- and 50-year-old candidates have demonstrated more longevity and loyalty in the roles they’ve taken than their millennial counterparts ever will.
  1. Prefer a high-energy up-and-comer athlete over someone on the downslope of their career – Because as we all know, older professionals are devoid of energy, drive, enthusiasm, and the ability to perform. What are we talking about here…ED? Do we really need to invent Viagra for Salespeople? Well, guess what – the person on the “downslope of their career” has just as much to prove (and gain) as the proverbial up-and-comer.
  1. Older candidates inherently have greater demands both inside (i.e., higher compensation) and outside of the workplace (e.g., caring for an elderly parent as well as kids). Well, actually, we all have demands that pull us in conflicting directions at any given time. That’s life. As for compensation, perhaps older candidates are at a different place in their life. Maybe their kids are done with college and the mortgage has since been paid off. That doesn’t preclude them from wanting to make as much money as possible, but it could mean that their priorities have shifted a bit — more interested in the role, company or industry instead of just focusing on the base and OTE. Last time I checked, this can be a good thing.
  1. Older candidates don’t bring the same level of career focus – In other words, because professionals who have been around the block have ostensibly accumulated a greater breadth of roles or permutations of the role in question, they are deemed less desirable. Granted, some “seasoned” candidates bring this upon themselves by emphasizing how they’ve done this, that, and everything else…for over 20 years. They’re trying to be all things to all people. Yet, hiring managers are equally prone to dinging candidates for keeping to the same kind of role throughout their career. They would be viewed as complacent — not seeking advancement or developing themselves beyond their comfort zone.

The current demographic shift in the U.S. population is quite dramatic. As baby-boomers hit their 50s and 60s, there aren’t as many qualified candidates in the more recent generations to continue fueling the hiring and growth objectives that employers seek to attain. That’s not to say that there aren’t viable candidates in their 20s or 30s. Oh, they’re around, all right. But in this highly candidate-driven talent market, they’ve become a hyper prized and increasingly expensive commodity. They’re expensive in two ways. First, all this attention to younger candidates has driven up their comp levels, in some cases to egregious levels not commensurate with skills, experience, or performance track record. They’re also expensive because as hiring companies hold out for that perfect up-and-comer, there’s an opportunity cost for taking four months to fill the role instead of just one.

Companies whose aim is to build their organizations with younger, mirror-image people of the same ilk are bound to compromise the sustainability of their growth plans. Not only will it take longer achieve their goals, putting them behind on their hiring objectives, but they will end up with homogenous groups of people who could never learn as much from one another as they could from a more diverse grouping of experience and skill sets. Yes, age discrimination is alive and well. Yet, it is the very companies that continue to practice age discrimination that end up suffering as much, if not more than those they discriminate against.

 

Action items:

  1. It’s the same 50- or 60-year-old C-level executives, who would be (justifiably) appalled to be discriminated against for their age, who are leading organizations that routinely engage in discriminatory hiring practices. Stop the hypocrisy!
  1. If you will not hire an older person because of concerns over the cultural fit, then it’s high time to reassess your culture.
  1. Attention older candidates: You’re not doing yourself any favors by using terms such as “seasoned” or “25 years’ experience.” In addition, you may have taken on a wide variety of roles throughout your career, but don’t forget to tailor the resume and your speaking points in an interview to the position you are vying for.
  1. “And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” – Abraham Lincoln
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