In the context of an ageing workforce, this article, based on a study by Dr Ulrike Fasbender of the Justus-Liebig-University Giessen and Mo Wang of the University of Florida, looks at how negative attitudes towards older workers can effect hiring decisions and makes suggestions on what organisations can do to tackle it.
The ageing population is increasingly becoming an issue for the workforce. People are choosing to work longer and are being required to do so, such as in Europe as many countries have increased retirement ages in an effort to keep social security and pension systems solvent. Even though age discrimination is illegal, unfair and unjust, findings show that the chances of being hired are lower for older people. Organisational hiring practices have often been blamed for unfair treatment on the grounds of age. Therefore, research needs to investigate the organisational decision-making of hiring older people with the aim of identifying ways to reduce age discrimination.
In order to counter age-discrimination, attitudes themselves towards older people need to change. Fasbender and Wang's recent study found that less than a quarter of participants ranked the oldest of three otherwise equally qualified candidates to be the most suitable person for a given job vacancy, which is below the chance level of one third and suggestive of discriminatory practices. The study found that negative attitudes toward older people were positively related to avoidance of hiring them which in turn is negatively related to the likelihood to select the oldest candidate.
A further finding is the role that core self-evaluations play in hiring decisions. Core self-evaluations refer to the perceptions that people hold about their own ability, merit and efficacy. The concept includes self-esteem, generalised self-efficacy, locus of control and emotional stability traits. Fasbender and Wang found that people with high self-evaluations are less susceptible to discriminate in hiring when holding negative attitudes, whereas people with low core self-evaluations are more likely to do so. This means that if the person hiring had strong perceptions of their own abilities and control, they are better placed to hire without bias. This is in keeping with the idea that older people can be a threat to younger and middle-aged decision makers' self-concept; a high self-concept is less likely to be threatened in this way.
Implications for organisations
This study also has significant implications for organisations. It confirms the previous idea that hiring decisions about older people are intended before the actual decision is made. Moreover, it explains this link not only in terms of misconceptions about older workers suitability for the role, but importantly in terms of the decision makers' core self-evaluations; discriminatory practices are in part about protecting one's self-concept.
Consequently, the following policy applications ensue. Organisations need to tackle not only negative attitudes towards older workers but also decision makers' self-concept. Negative attitudes towards older workers can be reduced by creating a work culture in which age diversity is fostered and appreciated. Previous research has shown that high quality inter-generational contract may be able to facilitate positive views toward older people at work.
Suggestions of how this can be achieved include:
Age diverse teams allowing colleagues to negotiate shared experiences and interests. Encouraging team members to feel that they have shared, rather than competing outcomes created interdependence between them and can shift how individuals categorise one another, helping to eradicate negative stereotypes. If this is not feasible, then different generations can be encouraged to work together through workplace opportunities such as volunteer programmes or sports teams.
Focused education and training can help to socialise employees and raise awareness of the strengths of the different working styles and differing motivations, e.g. through a series of workshops to share and develop leadership skills. Induction and orientation programmes can offer an opportunity for inter-generational contact where new recruits learn about the organisation through other employees' presentations, developing understanding and appreciation of a range of colleagues' roles.
Cross-generational mentor/mentee relationships allow older workers to mentor younger ones and encourage a flow of expertise and knowledge between the generations.
Reverse mentoring is an alternative form of mentoring which involves pairing younger, junior employees with older, senior colleagues to share expertise. Mentoring might take different forms, including one-to-one sessions or group programmes, giving respective groups the advantage of knowledge and experience through another 'generational lense'.
In terms of affecting decision-makers' self-concept, workplace interventions such as personal training and development activities may be able to enhance core self-evaluations among decision makers, making them less likely to feel threatened by older workers and thus acting as a buffer on the impact of negative attitudes towards older workers. In contrast, if older workers miss training and development opportunities, this may lead them to be negatively judged and perceived as resistant to change which may in turn create a vicious circle of negative categorisations.
As older workers form an increasingly high proportion of the workforce, sensitivity to varying needs whilst avoid stereotypes is paramount. Addressing negative attitudes and decision makers' self-concept together will enable organisations to counter some of the underlying mechanisms behind age-discriminatory hiring practices.
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By Dr Ulrike Fasbender, Assistant Professor at the Justus-Liebig-University Giessen in Germany.