Don’t discriminate against older workers: Age-old problem (BTO Article)

Apr 16, 2009 | Government News

By: Barbara Bowes, president, Legacy Bowes Group                 

Barbara Bowes, President, Legacy Bowes Group

Barbara Bowes, President, Legacy Bowes Group

What’s your perception of older workers? You know, those employees who are in the sunset of their lives (what age is that?) and who aren’t as productive or as flexible as younger folk.

Those are the people whom you perceive as unwilling to learn and try new things. They are the individuals who you don’t believe are as able to engage in physically demanding or stressful work. Right?

No, you are wrong!

In fact, these are nothing more than stereotypical views about older workers. These labels make assumptions about people that limit employment prospects for individuals while at the same time causing organizations to lose out from utilizing a valuable resource.

There are many examples of successful older workers, but one shining example that I recently heard about is a gentleman named Jens Magnusson. Well actually, he’s a much, much older worker — he’s 97.

For the last 47 years, Magnusson has been the active owner/operator of a well-known painting and decorating store, Daerwood Decorating, Paint and Supply in Selkirk. Age didn’t stop him. He not only served his retail customers but also continued travelling to work sites to supervise flooring installations, home renovations and painting contracts.

I understand it was the love of his job that kept him going and he is retiring only because of health issues. I don’t know the man myself, but I’m going to keep him in mind as a role model as I, too, become one of those older workers.

Actually, many older workers are staying in the workforce, not just for the salary and benefits they receive, but because they do indeed love what they do. They love being engaged in complex problem solving, being around people, learning new things and being involved in new challenges. They don’t want to spend all of their time at the golf course or playing bridge. These folks shatter the stereotypes of an older worker — they want to be busy and valued.

At the same time, leaders need to pay attention to age-related discrimination in their workplaces, as there are many practices — especially in hiring, promotion, job security, access to benefits and training opportunities and pay — that can put organizations at risk.

Most organizations have an anti-discrimination provision in their collective agreements and/or HR policy manual.

Typically, these clauses state that discrimination based solely on age is prohibited. Yet at the same time, if you examine their corporate job-application forms, you’ll find requirements to complete information about birthdates, dates of schooling and dates of previous employment. Many organizations don’t realize that all of these requirements are age related and can lead to discrimination.

How many times have you heard a candidate state in despair that a potential new employer selected a much younger person? Few interviewers would admit to this and, in fact, may not even recognize that they might be engaging in discrimination. As well, many older candidate are overlooked because they are perceived as being “over-qualified.” Is that really a code for “too old”?

On the other hand, if your organization has been involved in downsizing, there needs to be special attention paid to the risk of age discrimination when selecting the workers who are to leave your organization.

While for the last number of years, organizations have been focused on cultural diversity in the workplace, there hasn’t been much attention paid to ageism and how this is actually a diversity issue. Thus, we need to examine our stereotypes about age and older workers and evaluate how this negatively affects the workforce. Organizations also need to examine their collective agreements and HR policies to determine if inadvertent, systemic discrimination around the issue of age is taking place.

At the same time, organizations have to be realistic as there are indeed many baby-boomer employees who are considering retirement. This anticipated wave of retirements is frightening for many organizations because they recognize that much of their corporate knowledge might be walking out the door shortly. Leaders recognize that business interruption due to losing strong and effective leaders or talented technical professionals is a costly and unwanted course that they don’t want to take.

Therefore, many leaders are scrambling to find ways to retain their older workers. This threat has led to several unique employee-retention models such as non-traditional part-time work that includes one week on and one week off or phased retirement where an individual works reduced hours over a period of time.

Casual employment programs have been created that allow employees to work 1,000 hours each year without jeopardizing their pension plans, while other organizations are encouraging job sharing or flexible work schedules that are created around a core work period. Some organizations are promoting sabbaticals and/or extended leaves of absence as a means to retain their workers in the long term.

Yet, these innovative retention strategies are essentially only stop-gap measures. In the long term, organizations have to ensure they have a means of building internal institutional knowledge and expertise. Leaders need to aggressively engage in succession planning and replacement planning for each and every position within their companies. An analysis of skills needed to achieve the future vision of the organization must take place and a development plan initiated. In particular, organizations need to examine the issue of leadership as the exodus of older workers will cause leadership to be a scarce commodity.

I’m sure readers recognize that the issue of older workers is really a workplace diversity issue and one that is steeped in negative stereotypes and generalizations that are patently untrue. So, what can be done to avoid this?

To build a vibrant organization that values all employees, start by taking steps to examine and reduce your own stereotypical thinking. Identify the cause and the origin of your beliefs and clarify how these beliefs are affecting your organization.

Finally, review all of your organizational and HR practices to identify any biases that might exist, make changes where required and be innovative with your employee attraction and retention strategies.

Source: Collective Agreements and Older Workers in Canada, HRSDC, 2008, Employing Older Workers, SHRM, January 2009.

Barbara J. Bowes is president of Legacy Bowes Group and is the author of The Easy Resume Book: A Transferable Skills Approach. She can be reached at [email protected]. More information about Legacy Bowes Group, as well as additional articles by Barbara, can be found at

This article originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press on April 11, 2009.

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