Old Dogs Already Know the New Tricks: Ageism in Hiring

Man Looking At Job Ads“Buy low and sell high.” That’s how you make money. You buy your stocks or your raw materials at one price, then sell the stocks, your services or your finished product at a higher price that pays your expenses and salaries, and leaves a profit left over. It’s simple, right?

So why is it that when it comes to stocks and employees, we seem to be incapable of understanding and acting on this very simple premise? We rush to buy stocks when they’re “hot” and prices are at their highest, then sell when they fail to reach even higher heights and perform as we expect them to. Big surprise.

The same faulty thinking applies to hiring, particularly in the PR field. The recession created an incredible pool of experienced talent available at a bargain price, but what do we do? We keep chasing the same pool of inexperienced employees that need a significant investment in training and education before they can be a fully functional member of your team.

Studies cited by AARP highlight the myths held by HR and hiring managers, including that older applicants were more likely to be burned-out, resistant to new technologies, absent due to illness, poor at working with younger supervisors and reluctant to travel, are less creative, less productive, slower mentally and more expensive to employ.

“But Peter Cappelli, a management professor at the Wharton School of business and coauthor (with former AARP CEO Bill Novelli) of the 2010 book Managing the Older Worker, has looked more closely at these stereotypes, pulling together research from fields like economics, demography and psychology. What he determined: Virtually none of them holds up.

When it comes to actual job performance, Cappelli says, older employees soundly thrash their younger colleagues. “Every aspect of job performance gets better as we age,” he declares. ‘I thought the picture might be more mixed, but it isn’t. The juxtaposition between the superior performance of older workers and the discrimination against them in the workplace just really makes no sense.’”

But many employers are uncomfortable with the professional skills of younger workers.

“A survey by the Workforce Solutions Group at St. Louis Community College finds that more than 60% of employers say applicants lack “communication and interpersonal skills” — a jump of about 10 percentage points in just two years. A wide margin of managers also say today’s applicants can’t think critically and creatively, solve problems or write well.

Another employer survey, this one by staffing company Adecco, turns up similar results. The company says in a statement, “44% of respondents cited soft skills, such as communication, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration, as the area with the biggest gap.”

Our stereotypes and prejudices are preventing us from finding the best, most qualified employee because we stop looking at many candidates for reasons that have absolutely no connection with how they do their job. How do we “know” that a new college graduate can’t function effectively solve problems? Did you ask them for an example of when they’ve been faced with a problem they were responsible for solving? How do we “know” that a 50+ worker doesn’t know technology or social media?

Here’s one opinion from a Millennial who decided to insert herself into a LinkedIn group discussion on ageism in the PR profession. The name has been withheld to protect the guilty:

Though I do believe that older employees due hold more reliability and comfort to the company in which they work for. However, the face of media is rapidly changing as technology is taking over or at least being implicated into business plans. Because of this fact, I think that younger professionals have more of an advantage because we grew up in an environment where we were able to watch and participate in many social networking sites. We know how it works and understand how to use it. I am not saying that an older professional could not figure how to utilize these strategies to benefit the company, I’ve personally found that many of those who have been in the industry for a while unwilling and still are unable to see the value that technology provides. I think the only solution is to mix the new with the old, then we would be able to use the expertise of our senior executives while still providing insight as to the benefits of technology.

Acceptance of technology is key–after all, our generation is integrating into the PR field and your resistance and bitterness isn’t going to stop it. We all have value in this profession and if we work together, imagine how successful we would be. @John: I’m sorry if you don’t agree with my quick response via iPhone (technology at its finest), but maybe you should focus your energy on how to effectively communicate with others and stop taking your bitterness out on younger generations.

I kid you not. She does have a valid point, once you restrain your twitching fingers from reaching for your red pen. She also demonstrates a significant bit of cluelessness as the young (and some not-so-young) so often do in her post. She chose to insert herself into a social media group of mostly 45 and up professionals sharing our personal experiences with age discrimination to tell us we don’t understand/aren’t willing to learn how to use social media, and essentially said it’s our own fault that we’re discriminated against. And when the inevitable blowback occurred, she resorted to the Millennial version of the-dog-ate-my-homework excuse: “It’s the phone’s fault.” MmmHmmm. Sure. Good way to persuade persuade people.

The whole point of my argument was actually summed up very well (and more diplomatically) by another Millennial who participated in the same discussion, Ashlee Espegnell:

I think this kind of a hiring trend hurts everyone in the long run. I worry that if companies stop having experienced PR/comm people on staff to mentor new employees, they’re going to end up with a workforce full of people who know the tech but not the important aspects of the business (clients, past successes/failures, etc). I personally would prefer to learn the practical application of skills from someone who’s had experience doing it; not from a company’s social media strategy document! It’s also not particularly encouraging for new people in the industry to think that there may not be long-term job prospects out there. Here’s hoping – for all of us! – that this trend doesn’t continue.

So how do we fix this? How do we persuade employers and HR departments that age is irrelevant, that it’s attitude and ability that matters most? I’m open to ideas.



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