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Want to Hire Diverse Candidates? First Drop This Hidden Bias

When the smiling faces on your diversity hiring poster all belong to people under 50, is it any surprise that ageism is still a problem?


Your organization is committed to diversity. You pride yourself on hiring people of all races, genders, and creeds. And yet, there’s still something you’re missing. This bias sneaks past even well-designed diversity hiring strategies. Ask most hiring managers if they have it and they’ll say: of course not. But a look at who they’re hiring tells a different story. When the smiling faces on your diversity poster all belong to people under 50, is it any surprise that ageism is still a problem?

Of course, it’s illegal and unethical. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act has outlawed hiring decisions based on age since 1967. In 2019, about 21 percent of workplace discrimination charges filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) were age-related. That’s 15,573 instances of alleged age discrimination. But the problem may be even bigger.

Age discrimination is sometimes hard to detect and even harder to prove. Many organizations don’t even realize it’s infiltrated their hiring practices. That’s unfortunate because ageism weakens your team. How? Artificially limiting your talent pool means you have fewer qualified candidates to choose from. It also means you miss out on the unique advantages that older employees can bring to the workplace. More on those in a minute. First, let’s look at the assumptions that underpin ageism. Assumptions you may not even realize you’ve made.

Assumptions That Underpin Ageism

People online and in the media love to talk about generational groups in the workplace. We’ve all read stories and infographics that make broad claims about the strengths and weaknesses of different generations. Although this content attempts to help managers understand the people they’re leading, it also tends to perpetuate biases. How many times have you heard that Boomers aren’t tech savvy or that they’re reluctant to embrace fast-paced change?

All this talk of people as members of generational groups feeds the idea that your age somehow dictates your abilities, values, and how you think. It leads to gross generalizations about older workers. Including stereotypes like:

1. They Don’t Have The Skills

The digital learning industry requires technical skills. It’s in the name. One insidious assumption that sneaks into decision making is the idea that older applicants aren’t tech savvy. They’re not digital natives, you think, so clearly they don’t know this stuff as well as a younger applicant will. It seems like a logical conclusion. There’s just one problem. In many cases, it’s flat wrong. Pew research has found that Boomers and Gen Xers are both heavy adopters of technology. An older employee can learn the same technical skills as someone fresh out of college. And, by the way, many people are returning to college in their 30s, 40s, and beyond.

Technical ability has nothing to do with age and everything to do with an employee’s willingness to put in the effort to stay up to date. This brings us to the next stereotype.

2. They Don’t Want To Learn

Assuming that older employees don’t want to learn new skills and technologies goes against everything digital learning stands for. You can be a lifelong learner at any age. Again, it’s in the name. Lifelong means your whole life, not just the first 20 or 30 years.

This stereotype is sometimes expanded to include the idea that older employees are uncomfortable with rapid innovation. But the truth is that how well an employee deals with change depends more on their personality than their age.

3. They’re Just Coasting To Retirement And Won’t Stick Around

There’s only one thing wrong with that assumption: everything. According to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics data, about 20% of Americans aged 65 and older are still in the workforce. More than half of workers say they expect to work past age 65. Plus, while the median employee tenure across all ages is about 4 years, workers aged 55 and older tend to stay in their jobs for about 9 years.

4. They’re Too Expensive

You might assume that an older applicant who has been a director or executive will expect to be paid more. But most older applicants understand that a job with less responsibility usually comes with a slightly smaller paycheck. Some research suggests that older workers care more about building strong professional relationships than they do about salary.

The Value Of Hiring “Older” Employees

Aside from staying in their jobs longer, older employees also deliver something valuable that their younger counterparts simply can’t: experience. There are only so many hours in a day and so many workdays in a year. An employee who has been in the education, training, or product operations space for two decades is more experienced than someone who has worked in digital learning for five years.

Although digital learning is constantly evolving, it will always require the core skills of communication, collaboration, time management, project collaboration, and leadership. Skills that older workers have had more time to hone.

Plus, we all know that diversity leads to better outcomes. Diverse teams are more creative and better at finding solutions. That’s true whether you’re talking about racial diversity, gender diversity, or age diversity. People with different life experiences think differently. And that’s a great thing. Older employees may be more skilled at lateral thinking—creative problem solving— because they have a more diverse pool of experiences to draw from as they look for solutions.

How To Offset The Ageism Bias

No one wants to believe that they have a bias, but the first step toward fixing a problem is recognizing it. Acknowledge that ageism can be a problem in the hiring process. Then take steps to make sure it doesn’t hobble diversity hiring in your organization.

1. Look For Code Words In Your Job Postings

Words like digital native, energetic, or high potential are often code words for “young,” and many job seekers know it. Remove these words from your job postings and your hiring checklists.

2. Remove Dates From Resumes

This is one of the quickest and simplest ways to keep the ageism bias from infiltrating your hiring process. Have someone who is not on the hiring team censor dates from resumes or job applications so it’s harder to tell how old the applicant is.

3. Focus On Skills And Work Experience

Before you post a job, get clear on the skills and experience needed for the role. Then draft your interview questions based on those bullet points. Make sure recruiters and interviewers, including third-party talent placement agencies, understand the criteria for the role.

For a closer look at how all types of bias can affect your hiring process and what to do about it, download our Guide to Minimizing Bias In Your Hiring Process.

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