Ageism in the Workplace

Obvious and Prevalent as We All Fear

From the language used in job descriptions to saying a potential candidate is ‘overqualified,’ age-based discrimination starts as early as the job application phase, where it’s most prevalent

Ageism is arguably the most socially acceptable form of discrimination in the workplace. As more and more people re-enter the workforce following the coronavirus pandemic, it’s important to understand, identify and eliminate ageist practices and behaviors as we strive for an all-inclusive workplace.

There is currently an uphill battle in addressing the role ageism plays in day-to-day work as few workplace training seminars exist to educate and safeguard against ageism while limited HR policies exist to protect individuals who report instances of ageism.

According to new research from WerkLabs, the data and insights division of The Mom Project, due to the seemingly acceptable prevalence of ageism in the workplace, 95% of survey participants who reported experiencing ageism admitted to having consciously tried to physically conceal or mask the appearance of their age in interviews.

“Anything from language used in job descriptions to a hiring manager telling a prospective employee he or she is ‘overqualified’ can be considered age discrimination,” said Dr. Pam Cohen, President of WerkLabs and the study’s lead author. “Our goal with this study was to not only identify what constitutes ageism but also where employees are witnessing it the most in order to provide organizations with actionable solutions to overcome and prevent this illegal discrimination.”

In a survey of more than 700 professionals over the age of 40, among those who indicated experiencing ageism in their careers, 75% experienced that discrimination during their job search, while 53% indicated ageism within their workplace.

Alarmingly, ageism is showing as most acute in the fastest-growing future of work industries such as financial services (85%), advertising and marketing (84%), and technology (81%).

Unfortunately for many potential job candidates, ageism can start as early as the application process whether they are forced to include a graduation year, limit their entire work experience to the past X amount of roles or years, or simply from the language utilized in job descriptions and recruiting materials, including phrases like “We are an extremely young company” or “We move really fast around here.”

According to one surveyed professional, “There’s an assumption that I wouldn’t want the roles. The statement that I would be ‘bored’ (which is code word for ‘too old’), and lack of giving me a chance despite many years of future availability and a willingness to learn.”

From there, candidates may face age discrimination during the interview process, being asked unrelated tech-based questions, having cumulative work experience being undervalued, or younger hiring managers being surprised at a candidate’s age during their first face-to-face interaction. In fact, 69% of professionals surveyed report that momentum in their job search had been derailed by face-to-face conversations with hiring teams, with many admitting to consciously trying to conceal or mask their age during interviews.

It’s during the initial screening conversations and during post-screen interviews where ageism is most prevalent, according to the study, with 64% of respondents reporting ageism during initial screening conversations and 63% during post-screen interviews. While these professionals don’t report much age-based discrimination (32%) while confidently completing a work sample or skill assessment, that number nearly doubles to 63% when they are informed of final hiring decisions.

Ageism, though, isn’t just limited to the application and hiring process. Current and new employees can face discrimination based on there age in the workplace whether they’re overlooked for promotions and career advancement, not receiving organizational support to expand their skillset, or not receiving respect from coworkers for their career expertise and experience.

Unfortunately, many employees who experience ageism are already fearful about being pushed out of the organization, so they bite their tongues and don’t report the discrimination to human resources, instead favoring external assistance, mostly through an employment attorney.

“To ensure an inclusive workplace, while preventing age discrimination, all companies should re-evaluate their recruitment materials and career development programs, while educating  hiring managers and employees on unconscious biases and ageist practices in work,” Dr. Cohen said. “Regardless of race, religion, gender or age, we all have something to contribute to our respective employers and we should feel empowered to do so.”

You can read two versions of the reports here -

Qualitative Report (supplementary)

Quantitative Report

About The Mom Project

The Mom Project is the leader in helping businesses attract and retain female talent. With a community of more than 500,000 talented professionals connecting to 2,000+ companies, The Mom Project is committed to building a better workplace by harnessing the oft-overlooked intellectual workplace power of moms. The Chicago-based company was founded in 2016 by Allison Robinson, who serves as CEO, and has raised $36M in funding to date. Serena Williams joined The Mom Project as a Strategic Advisor in early 2020 to further mobilize the mission.

About WerkLabs

Founded in 2020 after The Mom Project’s acquisition of Werk.coWerkLabs offers research and support for corporate leaders on important workplace topics including employee engagement, DE&I, benefits and policy advisory. Led by Dr. Pam Cohen, PhD, WerkLabs goes beyond insights by leveraging behavioral science and predictive analytics to help companies identify which changes will have the greatest impact on employee engagement and offer the best return on investment for the business.