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Meeting of July 15, 2009 – Age Discrimination in the 21st Century-Barriers to the Employment of Older Workers

Statement of Michael Campion
Professor of Management
Purdue University

Chairman Ishimaru, Vice Chair Griffin, and Commissioner Barker, thank you for the invitation to speak with you about age stereotyping in the workplace. My name is Michael Campion, and I am a professor of Management at Purdue University.

I. Introduction

The field of Industrial and Organizational Psychology and related fields have extensively researched the topic of age stereotypes in the workplace. Together with Prof. Richard Posthuma at the University of Texas - El Paso, I reviewed this research literature to identify the most common findings on age stereotyping as it applies to the work setting. We also considered how these stereotypes might impact older workers in reductions in force. Our review considered about 120 research studies representing a broad range of companies, jobs, and employees, and the results recently were published in the February 2009 issue of the Journal of Management. I have submitted the article to you to make available in the record as you deem appropriate. I’d like to spend the next few minutes providing an overview of our findings.

II. Negative Age Stereotypes Are Applied to the Work Setting

Stereotypes are a natural consequence of how people’s brains categorize information about the world around them. Unsurprisingly, people hold age stereotypes in work settings. Evidence indicates that older employees hold the same age stereotypes as younger employees, and are likely to rely on those stereotypes – consciously or unconsciously – in decision making. Additionally, there are perceptions that certain jobs should be held by workers of certain ages, and that age stereotypes are more influential when this perception does not match the candidate’s (or incumbent’s) age. For example, retail sales is thought to be a particularly “young” industry, and older workers may believe that they have fewer job opportunities in this industry. In addition to retail, research also has shown that age stereotypes are particularly strong in industries such as finance, insurance, and information technology/computing.

III. Specific Negative and Positive Stereotypes Applied to Older Workers

Common negative stereotypes about older workers include that they are more costly, harder to train, less adaptable, less motivated, less flexible, more resistant to change, perhaps less competent, and less energetic than younger employees. Similarly, older workers face stereotypes that job performance declines with age, but there is extensive research showing that performance often improves with age and, when declines are found, they tend to be small. In fact, employee age is much less important to job performance than individual health and skill. There are much greater differences in terms of job performance within age groups than between age groups.

Another common negative stereotype is that older workers provide a lower return on investments such as training because they have less time in their careers for the employer to recoup a return on the investment. Research shows this stereotype may not be true, because older workers are less likely to quit, and the payback from such investments tend to come in the first several years after the training as opposed to over the long-term. Nonetheless, as a result of such stereotypes, older workers are commonly rated as having less potential for development than younger workers and they are given fewer training and development opportunities.

There also are positive stereotypes associated with older employees, including that they are more stable, dependable, honest, trustworthy, loyal, committed to the job, and less likely to miss work or turnover quickly. There is evidence to support some of these positive traits – older workers are less likely to steal from their employers, have better attendance records, and are less likely to quit than their younger counterparts.

IV. Age Stereotypes Negatively Affect Older Workers in a Variety of Ways

There has been less HR focus on preventing discrimination due to age stereotypes than to preventing discrimination due to race and gender stereotypes. Not surprisingly, negative age stereotypes have been shown to influence the outcomes of employment-related decisions in a variety of settings. For example, research has shown that, as a result of age stereotypes, older persons with the same or very similar qualifications or attributes commonly receive lower ratings in interviews and performance appraisals, and thus are likely to have more difficulty finding or retaining employment or getting promotions. As mentioned above, older workers also may receive fewer training and development opportunities as a result of age stereotyping.

Age stereotypes may especially impact the employment of older workers in downsizing situations for several reasons:

  • The primary goal of downsizing is usually to reduce costs, so the age stereotypes about older employees being more costly, harder to train, less flexible, or less competent may have become salient to decision makers.
  • Picking employees to terminate is usually not based on an explicit analysis of the future work to be accomplished in the downsized organization, which research suggests could reduce the potential effects of stereotypes, but instead is usually based simply on comparing employees to each other, which increases the potential effects of stereotypes.
  • Similarly, little information is usually gathered or considered on employee skills, credentials, experiences, and so on upon which to base judgments.
  • The criteria used tend to be vague and poorly defined, which may allow stereotypes to operate. The criteria are often highly subjective, which also allows stereotypes to operate.
  • Also, often termination decisions are based on criteria that are age related (such as future potential).
  • Managers are rarely trained on how to make termination decisions in a job-related, systematic, and fair manner.
  • Age stereotypes are often made salient to decision makers by inadvertently providing date-of-birth information to them on personnel records.
  • Managers are often allowed to make evaluations fairly autonomously, with no independent evaluations as a check against stereotypes.
  • Managers are usually given no feedback on the potential operation of stereotypes (such as adverse impact analyses), so that they might become aware of the operation of stereotypes and make corrections.

As a result, downsizings usually have a much more negative impact on older workers than younger works.

Layoffs have a particularly harsh impact on older workers, as they may again be exposed to stereotyping when they try to find new jobs. Research on reemployment after layoff show that older workers who have been laid off take longer to find new jobs than younger workers. It also reveals that older workers are less likely to gain reemployment than younger workers, and that workers who are laid off generally do not recover the wage rates they had before being laid off.

V. Recommendations to Minimize the Effects of Age Stereotyping

As part of my age stereotyping review, I suggested some practical recommendations for reducing the impact of age stereotypes on the employment opportunities of older workers. First, employers should recognize that probably most people hold age stereotypes, consciously or unconsciously, and that these stereotypes negatively influence employment decisions. Employers also should focus attention on the individual, job-related characteristics of employees, which tends to reduce the impact of age stereotypes. As such, employment decisions should always begin with an analysis of the work to be done, and the knowledge, skills, and other human attributes required to perform that work.

Once job-related standards are developed, employers should use a reliable and consistently applied procedure to evaluate employees against those requirements. To ensure the integrity of these evaluations, training employees about the existence and consequences of age stereotypes may help make people aware of the problem and may help them avoid it. Finally, organizations should monitor the impact of employment decisions on age, like they should do for race and gender, and take action when disparities occur.