A Workplace for the Ages

My mother had been a vice president of a health system in Connecticut, and had more than 30 years of experience that ranged from hands-on work in medical records to executive-level decision-making. Yet when her last major job came to an end at age 60, there were no takers in hiring her.

My mother had never experienced not being sought after. “I had always been snapped up so fast,” I remember her telling me. What had changed? My mother was still the same smart, efficient, resourceful, pleasant person she had always been, and at that age and time, she still had energy and good health, and made a great appearance (people often assumed she was years younger).

After a couple of years went by without a new job, my mother, who always hated playing the victim, had to admit she might be facing age discrimination.

It’s illegal in the U.S. to discriminate on the basis of age, along with gender, race, religion, marital status, and other demographics. But it’s a hard thing to regulate. How do you prove a person didn’t get a job because of his or her age?

A news report I noticed last week out of Australia, which is just as, if not much more, progressive than the U.S., announced that age discrimination can happen to people as young as 45.

Is your company conscious about not letting age affect the pool of applicants invited to interview in person, and the person who then is hired? How do you be conscious about deterring age discrimination?

With more Baby Boomers staying in the workplace longer, along with the influx of Millennials entering the workforce, companies have the opportunity to create jobs that optimize the knowledge and abilities of employees spanning a wide range of ages.

For example, you can have the tribe of corporate elders who come up with big-picture strategy, and you have the younger employees who can do not just the hands-on grunt work, but can be in “big-picture” meetings with the elders to tell them what makes sense, and is doable, given modern technology, and what doesn’t make sense for people of their generation. Some older employees are tech-savvy, making a point of keeping up with the changing times, but many others are not. That’s OK, but for that reason, it’s important to have leadership opportunities alongside the elders that are reserved for Millennials and Generation Xers. The older employees have a wealth of experience handling age-old business challenges, such as demanding or disappointed clients, while the younger employees may be more adept at taking that knowledge and finding new ways of using it to find solutions. For instance, a younger employee might be able to take an older employee’s approach for handling customer complaints and requests, and turn it into a user-friendly mobile app. Or they may have an idea for using the old approach to customer relationship management to facilitate conversations on the company’s Facebook page.

Sometimes budget tightening leads to a preference for the young and less experienced. And that can inadvertently turn into age discrimination. At my company, I’ve been after a role at a fashion optical publication. Optical fashion just sounds a lot more fun to me, and much more up my alley, than my current role at a health trade publication. The editor there likes me, and I like him, and the publication, but he keeps getting pressed to hire interns, rather than look for more experienced people. The last time a position opened up, he told me that after receiving “input from management,” he decided to turn the position into an entry-level job. I was disappointed, and said regretfully that I wished I had gotten in on the ground floor at a publication like his when I was a 22-year-old. I’m 41, and I’ve already aged out of making a switch with comparable pay to a publication that would make me much happier.

Does something similar happen at your company? Do you have mid-level employees in their 40s or 50s who would love to move into another department, but the company is hesitant to allow that because it’s cheaper to hire from the bottom-up, bringing in entry-level people instead? What is the solution, so you can give your high-performing mid-level employees exciting opportunities, and increase your chances of retaining them? In the process you also may find they provide greater quality and output in exchange for the added costs of hiring them. And who’s to say you can’t benefit from both the mid-level employee, while continuing to enjoy input and skills from interns and entry-level workers? What if, instead of always hiring from the bottom-up to save money, you once in a while give the opportunity to a mid-level employee, who is qualified and really wants it, and then expand your internship opportunities? You could launch a new internship program that includes interns who first work with your practice long-distance, offering ideas and doing work on projects, in exchange for school credit and resume-worthy experience, and then come on board in person as space in the office opens up.

What are some creative ways to benefit from the expertise and skills of employees of all ages?

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