Is Age Discrimination a Result of Change?

A class-action age discrimination lawsuit has been filed against IBM.  Much of the complaints in the action come from a report that purports to outline how the company has systematically replaced older workers with newer ones.  IBM is denying the allegations.

There are a couple of compelling issues here.  One is whether IBM is using sly methods to rid itself of older (read: more expensive) workers.  The other is whether workers who are in mid-career are technologically behind their younger counterparts in a meaningful way.  I’ll leave the former to the courts.  I’m much more interested in the latter.

There are some national studies that indicate that openness to new experiences does decrease with age.  However, the ability to learn does not. So, we can assume that older employees who are open to learning new technologies can certainly do so.

Whether it is how we get to a friend’s house or how we use technology, most of us like to stick to what we know and adapt to change in ways that keep our patterns of behavior.  To keep up-to-date on new technology or techniques not only requires a desire to learn, but also the willingness to give up what we have been good at.

There probably is not data to support the idea, but I am guessing that the hiring strategy at many companies is that they would rather select people who know the new stuff rather than try to train for it. If companies decide that they want to bring on those who have experience with newer technology, their layoff/hiring practices will likely show adverse impact against those 40 and older.

A person’s background is instructive in this area.  For people who have stayed up to date on technology throughout their careers, it is foolish to assume that they will not pick up (or haven’t already picked up) on the next new thing.  As such, I don’t believe that they are behind younger workers.  Senior management would have reason to be concerned about older workers who have not shown a willingness to update their skills.

Are older workers less likely to adapt to new technologies?  On the whole, probably.  However, painting them with a broad brush is likely a mistake.  Companies should do a thorough evaluation of the experienced talent before making decisions that can land them in court.

Reducing Bias Through Structure

Finding examples of racial or gender bias in hiring or job evaluations is not hard.  The latest comes from a survey of lawyers.  My sense is that the results did not come from a random sample of attorneys, so I would not quote the group differences as gospel.  The authors recommended some specific ways that law firms and companies that hire lawyers can correct the bias in their HR processes.  There were two things I took from the study:

  • Many, but not all, of the recommendations came from a solid research base. It was good to see that their hiring suggestions included behaviorally based interviews, skills based assessments, and using behavioral definitions of culture.  Each of these suggestions introduces objectively and structure into the hiring process.
  • Given that attorneys have either brought employment lawsuits or have had to defend companies against them since 1964, did it really take this long to come up with some hiring process recommendations?

My consulting experience tells me that people who hire for professional jobs seem to think there is more magic and intuition in selection than those who staff for other types of positions.  This is especially true when hiring for a job they used to have.  They could not be more wrong.  Every job has a set of critical skills and abilities required to do it well.  It is possible to objectively measure these in candidates.  Doing so will likely reduce bias.

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