Focus on Job Context, Not Age, in Layoff Decisions

Aug. 24, 2009
Age discrimination can be reduced if employers base personnel decisions on job-relevant requirements and focus on the abilities of those able to perform the work and not on how old they are, according to a leading authority on employment discrimination.

Michael Campion, a professor of management at Purdue University, was among the invited testifiers at recent Equal Employment Opportunity Commission public hearings held to examine the impact of age stereotyping. He attributed the recent spike in age discrimination complaints partly to widespread layoffs and downsizings, which may have an adverse impact upon older workers, as well as common stereotypes which classify them as being more costly, harder to train, less flexible, more likely to quit, resistant to change and lack the energy of their younger counterparts.

These negative stereotypes have been shown to influence employment decisions, often resulting in older workers being among the first to be let go and the last to gain reemployment, he said.

"Stereotypes are a natural consequence of how people's brains categorize information about the world around them," Campion explained. "So it's not surprising that age stereotypes exist within the workplace. However, not all of them are accurate."

Campion told the EEOC panel the impact of age stereotypes on employment opportunities for older persons would be diminished if employers, when faced with downsizing decisions, focus attention on the individual job-related characteristics of employees. "Employment decisions should always begin with an analysis of the work to be done, and the knowledge, skills and human attributes required to perform that work," he said.

Once job-related standards have been developed, employers should use a reliable and consistently applied procedure to evaluate employees against those standards, regardless of employees’ age, he explained.

For the most part, however, employers do not base their decisions on a solid analysis of the future work to be accomplished, Campion pointed out. “Rather, they are likely to ask, ‘Who can we let go?’ and often simply compare employees to each other, which increases the effects of stereotypes,” he said.

Campion said there has been less HR focus on preventing discrimination due to pre-existing perceptions on age than to preventing race and gender discrimination. Those who do the hiring should be made aware about the existence and consequences of age stereotypes and organizations should monitor the impact of employment decisions on age, like they do for race and gender, and take action when disparities occur, he told the panel.

Positive Stereotypes

Not all age-related stereotypes, however, are negative. Older workers often are considered more stable, dependable, honest, trustworthy, loyal, committed to the job and less likely to miss work or leave the job, noted Campion.

As for the widespread assumption that workers’ performances decline as they get older, Campion said industrial and organizational psychologists, who have extensively researched age stereotypes in the workplace, have produced numerous studies showing job performance does not decline with age.

Older workers have a lot going for them that make them desirable to retain on the work force, Campion said. For example, older workers tend to find more efficient ways of performing their jobs and often are more helpful to their colleagues and exhibit better organizational citizenship.

Campion concedes that older employees often do cost more, not just in wages, but in benefits as well. On the other hand, he said, it is common for companies to pay more for younger workers, primarily due to market factors driving up entry-level wages. In addition, research has shown that older persons with the same or similar qualifications as younger workers receive lower ratings in job interviews and performance appraisals.

Recognizing Stereotypes

Not only are older workers among the first to be laid off, in part due to stereotypes about them, but they face those stereotypes again when they look for another job.

"Research on re-employment shows 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 be re-employed and that they generally do not recover the wages rates they had before being laid off,” said Campion.

"Employers should recognize that probably most people hold age stereotypes, consciously or unconsciously, and they negatively influence employment decisions," he added.

EEOC will use Campions' testimony and others to consider proposals for regulatory and legislative action.

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