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Ageism in the workplace: Examining the influence of age conceptualisation on the advancement opportunities of older workers

American research, July 2013

The workforce is getting older, but are we ready to accept, if not embrace, that reality? Research conducted by Professor Averhart (Florida International University) sheds light on the impact of age-related biases on managerial decision-making. Focusing on the moments when selecting individuals for training and promotion opportunities, Averhart asked: does age matter? The answer is yes, but it’s not a simple story of bias in one direction.

The research highlights the seemingly subtle ways in which biases play out when decisions are made about who should be moving “up” in the organisation. Unconscious age-related biases are found to negatively disadvantage older workers in a systemic way when it comes to perceived benefits of investing in workers. Unconscious biases are impacting managers’ perceived willingness to invest in older workers. However, when it comes to actually predicting the probability of workers who will be given training and promotion opportunities, the bias is surprisingly skewed toward older workers. As such, there a discrepancy between the perceived value of older workers and the probability of providing them with opportunities when training and promotion decisions are being made.

The findings lend weight to the argument there is a grey ceiling that, in our view, needs to be broken. Critically, the research points to a very real risk that the playing field is not level for both mature age and less senior candidates, as their potential contribution to the organisation is not being equally evaluated. As such, it is likely many organisations are sitting on untapped potential within their organisation.

Aim

The study aimed to provide insight into how age-related biases may impact the treatment of older workers. The research hypothesised that age conceptualisation, gender, tender-mindedness, openness to values and emotional intelligence would affect the relationship between a worker’s age and a manager’s view on whether or not they should be provided with opportunities.

Method

To test the hypotheses, the study asked approximately 500 working professionals to complete a simulation exercise. Each participant was asked to read one of four training and promotion scenarios; identical but for the fictional worker’s age. Participants were then asked to provide a probability rating and benefit rating for training and for promoting the worker in the scenario. The results were then collated and used to test twenty four hypotheses.

Findings

The study found that both actual age (i.e. chronological)  and the way in which it was conceptualised (i.e. tenure) affected participant’s;

  1. Training and promotion recommendations, and
  2. Perceptions of benefits that could be gained.

The analysis revealed that managers tend to see more benefit in investing in younger workers, both in terms of individual and organisations benefits, when compared to their older counterparts. Yet, even though older workers were perceived less favourably, they fared better overall when it came to predicting who would be provided with training and promotion. Contrary to the researcher’s starting hypothesis, older workers were found to be more likely to be provided with training and promotion recommendations. Such findings may reflect stereotypes related to older workers, but not necessarily in the anticipated manner. 

Misconceptions of age are typically underpinned by an assumption of old age equating to “decay” (Clark, 1997). Despite evidence to the contrary, older workers are believed to take more time off, have decreased performance, have more accidents, are less adaptable, less responsive to change, simply ‘waiting’ to retire, take jobs from younger people and are incapable of learning new things (AAPR, 2007). In addition, they are also seen to experience greater fatigue, be more unenthusiastic, less knowledgeable and less interested in receiving training when compared to younger workers (Bulter, 2010). These age-related stereotypes have been found to deny older workers with fair access to opportunities. This study confirms that in today’s world of work, there are widely held misconceptions about benefits of older workers and their productive potential. Yet these do not simply translate to a “grey ceiling”.

Organisations often want to rid their organisation of older workers in a bid to inject “new blood” into teams. However, when it comes to making decisions about who should move “up”, older workers are seen as being more promotable and more likely to be given training opportunities. This positive finding is sandwiched against the second less rosy insight: older workers are still not being equally valued when it comes to their perceived value.

One possible suggestion is that opportunities should be based on personal or employment attributes, rather than merit. It is worth noting, however, that openness to values (or being open minded) emerged as a moderator during the decision-making process, and lessened age-related biases.  The significance of this finding is the practical implication: organisations can act in meaningful ways to address age-related biases and level out the playing field when it comes to conceptualising value and making decisions.

Implications

Managers and HR practitioners must be aware of the impact of age-related stereotypes on their decision-making processes. By being cognisant of the powerful influence of biases, and the moderating impact of being open-minded, pitfalls can be avoided. To assist, training selection and promotion decisions should be made in accordance with clearly defined guidelines and processes that promote fairness and transparency. In addition, organisations should track and hold managers accountable for differential training spends on employees by age group as transparency and accountability are two effective strategies to move from awareness to action.

To read the full article, see Veronica, A. (2012) "Ageism in the Workplace: Examining the Influence of Age Conceptualization on the Advancement Opportunities of Older Workers" (2012). FIU Electronic Theses and Dissertations. Paper 585.
http://digitalcommons.fiu.edu/etd/585

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