Dealing With Ageism In The Workplace

Let’s look at the definition of ageism, examples of ageism in the workplace and how to deal with it when it happens.

Dealing With Ageism In The Workplace

Ageism in the workplace happens more often than you might think. Being passed over for a promotion because of your age, having your ideas routinely dismissed in meetings, or losing opportunities because you’re told you don’t “understand” new tech… there are countless ways—both obvious and covert—that people discriminate against older workers. 

If any of the above sounds familiar to you, there’s a good chance you’re experiencing ageism in the workplace. Let’s look at the definition of ageism, examples of ageism in the workplace and how to deal with it when it happens. 

What is ageism?

In its simplest form, ageism is a kind of discrimination. It involves passing judgment on someone based on their age—usually against older folks, although ageism against young people can happen, too (which is often called reverse ageism). Ageism is similar to sexism and racism in that it profiles somebody based on a characteristic they can’t change about themselves. 

Ageism leads to several distinct outcomes:

  • Feelings of sadness or low self-esteem 
  • Exclusion, a loss of opportunities and marginalization of the affected party
  • A loss of access to benefits like time off or promotions 
  • Being pushed to retire or resign based on age 

What is ageism in the workplace?

“That new logo looks like an old person designed it.” “Have you ever noticed how Dale just forgets to finish things? He’s getting senile.” “It’s not fair that Mary got a promotion. She’s not a hard worker, she’s just been here longer than anyone else.”

Unlike other kinds of discrimination, ageism can be tough to spot. Here are some examples of how ageism shows up in the workplace:

  • Hiring and Promotion: Older job applicants might face age-related biases that affect their chances of being hired. Some interviewers might assume older folks don’t have the right skillsets or tools to join a company.

  • Training and Development: Older employees may be denied opportunities for skill development, training, or attending workshops under the assumption that they are less adaptable or willing to learn new things.

  • Assigning Responsibilities: Older workers might be assigned less challenging tasks or responsibilities, even if they are capable of handling more complex roles.

  • Stereotyping: Stereotypes about age can lead to assumptions that older employees are technologically inept or resistant to change, while younger employees may be seen as lacking experience or not committed to long-term employment.

  • Pay Disparities: Older employees might experience pay disparities if they are unfairly compensated compared to their younger counterparts for the same level of work and experience.

  • Harassment: Age-related jokes, comments, or teasing can contribute to a hostile work environment.

  • Layoffs and Terminations: Older employees may be disproportionately targeted for layoffs or forced retirement, based on assumptions that they are closer to retirement age and may have higher salaries or benefits.

  • Access to Benefits: Ageism can affect access to benefits like health insurance or retirement plans, with older employees potentially facing reduced benefits due to assumptions about their shorter remaining work years.

  • Invisibility: Older employees may feel ignored or undervalued in discussions and decision-making processes.

  • Workplace Culture: A workplace culture that emphasizes youth or devalues the contributions of older employees can perpetuate ageism.

Examples of ageism in the workplace

One of our clients recently spoke in a coaching call about how she’s experienced ageism throughout the years. At her current workplace, she’s noticed the following types of ageist remarks and situations:

  • Younger employees lamenting getting old. “I can’t believe I’m getting wrinkles. I look like crap lately.” When her coworkers talk about aging, it’s never in a positive context.

  • Younger employees making jokes about older folks. “This design looks like an older person made it.”

  • Younger employees sabotaging opportunities with potential clients based on age. A lot of donors at the company our client works at are older. She worries that jokes made by young employees might negatively impact their donors and give them cause to make donations elsewhere.  

How to deal with ageism in the workplace 

If you’re experiencing ageism in the workplace, here are a few ways you can work to limit ageism when and where it shows up:

  • Tackle it head on. Talk to your coworkers about what makes you uncomfortable. Share what it feels like when they make age-related jokes around you.

  • Reframe what it means to age. Just because an idea came from an older person, does that mean it’s outdated? Push back during moments when younger employees equate growing older with becoming obsolete.

  • Bring it up with HR. Problems with discrimination can sometimes be too pervasive or too ingrained to change on your own. If attempts to talk to your colleagues about ageism don’t work, consider filing a formal complaint with your HR department about how to resolve the issue at hand—especially if it’s an issue concerning your compensation, promotion opportunities or other important benefits. 

Tackle ageism with coaching 

There’s a fourth way to combat ageism in the workplace: coaching. We are executive coaches who work with senior-level executives and leaders every single day. If you need an extra hand when it comes to finding impactful, creative ways to tackle ageism, book a free consultation call with one of our coaches today.  

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