Older tech workers face ageism in hiring

Employers missing out on top performers as companies target millennials: Report
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/30/2017
Google
Older workers face systemic ageism when it comes to recruitment in the tech sector, according to a report. Credit: Uladzik Kryhin (Shutterstock)

While older workers in the tech sector are more likely to be considered top performers, they also face systemic ageism when it comes to recruitment, according to a report from Visier Insights.

The ageism is evident even when the availability of talent is considered, said David Weisbeck, chief strategy officer at Visier in Vancouver.

“It shifted way towards millennial hires, so to us that’s where we see very strong evidence for bias here. It’s very different by comparison from other industries, in a dramatic way,” he said.

“It’s massively shifted for tech individuals to being hired much younger, even when you look at not just baby boomers but gen X as well.”

Non-manager workers in the tech sector are increasingly likely to receive a top performer rating as they age, mature and gain experience.

In contrast, in the non-tech sector, the performance ratings of workers decreases with age, found the report, which analyzed the workforce data of 43 Blue Chip companies in the United States (including 63,000 workers in the tech industry and 267,000 in the non-tech industry).

And yet the tech industry is hiring a disproportionately higher ratio of workers than non-tech, up until the age of 48, indicating there’s a bias towards hiring younger candidates.

When it comes to overcoming age bias, employers need to grow up, said Andrew Davis, a recruiter at Synergistic Communications in San Francisco.

“Managerial immaturity is widespread, and Silicon Valley’s bro culture is its most serious symptom. Age bias is a result of arrogance, insularity and fear,” he said.

“I know lots of older tech workers with exemplary track records who are more than willing and able to keep pace with their younger counterparts; they’re just not as masochistic or visibly youthful.”

But Feras Elkhalil, president of recruitment firm IT/IQ in Vancouver, said there’s a major shortage of talent when it comes to tech workers.

“Really, what our clients are looking for is they want the right skill, people that have that skill, and they want the right culture fit — those are the two things they’re after. And age aside, they just want the job done,” he said. “So is there ageism or is it really a skill gap?”

If there’s a shortage of talent, employers can’t be picky, said Elkhalil.

“Don’t get me wrong, there’s a certain level of cultural fit and I want someone that represents my business best but, at the same time, if you’ve got the skills and you’re representative of my culture and values or you’re just aligned with my values, were going to hire you,” he said.

“And that’s what we see out there, skill trumps all, really.”

What’s behind the bias?

There could be a few factors behind the bias, according to Weisbeck. For one, it could be a financial decision, as there’s an assumption younger workers are cheaper.

“The salary expectations for a 25-year-old are much different than a 45-year-old,” he said.

Tech employers also lean towards using a certain language that appeals to younger workers, such as “digital natives,” said Weisbeck.

“What it means is you grew up with a smartphone, you grew up with the internet, so these things are intuitive to you,” he said.

“Perhaps the good behind that assumption is that if you grew up with these things, you’re going to be able to contribute better or more to evolving and innovating often because you have more experience with them — so that may be the more altruistic reason for it.”

“But there’s also a bias assumed with that, that if you didn’t get access to that technology until you’re 20, therefore somehow you’re not going to able to contribute as well.”

There could also be a spiral effect happening, said Weisbeck, in that the tech industry looked to bring in young talent with workplace perks such as ping pong or foosball, so employers started to build out the things that reinforce that culture, he said.

“They reinforce bringing in more people who appreciate those things, and so it becomes a reinforcing loop to say, ‘OK, that’s the type of people who would like to work here, so that’s the type of people we’re going to source, so therefore that’s the type of people were going to hire,’” he said.

“People have a natural bias to hire people like themselves.”

There’s also the idea of bringing in “blue flames,” meaning people who burn the hottest or brightest, said Weisbeck.

“There’s a notion that if you bring in younger workers, they are going to work harder, they’re not going to have the rest of the trappings of life and family and other commitments, so they’ll be able to put in time and work and effort at a degree that older workers could not. So there may be some part of that bias as well.”

Another big reason younger people are hired more often is many older people who started out early in tech may not have stayed up to date with changes — because they didn’t need to or their employer didn’t make the investment, said Elkhalil.

“If that person finds themselves on the market again, but now they’re graduating with a level three in technology and technology’s evolved so quick that now it’s at level 10, there’s now a seven-year gap between what used to be happening and what it is today. And now you’re really caught.”

Technology is rapidly evolving and constantly reinvesting itself, said Elkhalil.

“If you’re talking technology, one year alone is like three times any other industry you’re dealing with, and that’s the problem… once you’re out, you’re not keeping up, it’s tough to get back in because the technology is evolving so quickly,” he said. “You’re not going to see it (in other sectors) because technology is constantly evolving.”

And younger workers are more inclined to stay up to date on the tech changes, he said.

“They’re just wired that way so they’ve accepted it, and maybe they’re quick to pick up ‘This is going to be obsolete, I’m jumping on the next train, I’m moving, my loyalty is not to the organization anymore’ versus (an older) gentleman... who’s really loyal to the organization.”

Both younger and older tech workers have their pros and cons, and companies with emotionally intelligent managers are empowered to quickly come to this understanding, said Davis.

“There’s little mystery to it: Older tech workers are more loyal, patient, reliable and productive,” he said, adding they like some leeway when it come to location. “Older tech workers’ domain experience is frequently helpful — it’s why most get hired — and their compensation expectations are modest compared to someone younger with the same skill set. And yet they are also costlier to insure and terminate.”

In his niche of writing documentation about complex software, Davis said the average individual contributor is well into her 50s, and there are several productive, in-demand workers in their mid-70s.

“Hiring managers often tell me that they don’t want to pay for irrelevant experience or hire someone who can’t adapt to their tools, priorities or speed. I ask them whether they’ve ever met anyone with just the right skills and experience — nope — much less a great candidate without ‘irrelevant’ work experience.”

Some hiring managers also concede they fear arguments or fact-based discussions with more experienced tech workers, he said.

“Essentially, they value control more than quality — and this can manifest as ageism. Companies that crow about their workplace amenities frequently don’t invest even a tenth as much into attracting and retaining older tech workers by supporting telework or underwriting training. Is this ageist or just narrow-minded?”

One company’s bias against older workers can be another’s secret sauce in favour of hiring those workers, according to Davis, who frequently sees bias related to the traits of many older tech workers, such as impatience with poorly planned or unplanned action, disinterest in youth-oriented group social activities, a focus on work-life balance, “ambivalence for the new and shiny,” skepticism about a company’s strategy or tactics, and a preference for flexible schedules and working from home.

“But unless management is verifiably unenlightened (for example, at Uber), I don’t necessarily equate that with a bias against age,” he said.

Overcoming bias

As part of its report, Visier made several recommendations on how employers can root out the risk of ageism in their workforce, while acquiring the best talent — regardless of age.

For one, they should review workforce data to understand the current state of age equity and see any signs of potential bias in hiring, promotions, salary levels, turnover and performance ratings.

“Understand how diverse you are by comparison to how diverse your talent pool is to get a little bit more sophisticated in your measures,” said Weisbeck.

“It’s not fair to say, ‘We should be 50-50 on things’ when the candidate pool doesn’t look that way.”

Employers should also look for pockets of ageism, and address these through culture change, said the report.

The age composition of specific teams, departments and business units should also be assessed, along with how managers can build diversity.

“You tend to have more pointed problems in different areas, so if you can find some focus on where you need to address challenges, that does make a big difference,” said Weisbeck. “It’s often good to find those patterns, otherwise you apply that broad brush-stroke, and you can make mistakes along the way.”

Another option is to consider the Rooney Rule, meaning including a candidate during the interview process who’s not like the others, who might have been disqualified otherwise. And
do the same for the interviewers.

“We have these natural biases to hire people like ourselves, and there’s nothing untoward or bad about that, it’s just a natural human phenomenon, so make the interviewer team more diverse and you’re more likely to be accepting of more diverse candidates,” he said.

Employers should also develop hiring practices that reduce the potential for intentional or unintentional bias in the screening out of older applicants.

There’s a calculus done by companies that says it’s cheaper to get younger workers — but employers should expand their math, said Weisbeck.

“If you’re hiring somebody who’s closer to 35 than 25, you might have a four-times lower turnover resignation rate.”

People who are younger in their careers are still figuring things out, and may be more inclined to jump ship to accelerate their careers and salary, he said.

“When you do that fuller calculus, the cost savings you’ve assumed in hiring younger may not be fully realized because turnover is shockingly expensive.”

For organizations willing to confront age-related biases, there are a few sure-fire ways to attract older tech workers, said Davis, such as offering or underwriting training in relevant technologies, and letting older workers train people in their expertise.

Employers should also engage independent contractors who are empowered to subcontract to older and offsite workers, he said, and commit to offering older contract workers salaried jobs, as “many older tech workers prefer predictability.”

Telecommuting should also be allowed when it doesn’t compromise quality or productivity, said Davis, and employers should be open-minded about best practices.

“Older tech workers can save you millions just by asking the right questions.”

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