Too much experience: Older workers’ perceptions of ageism in the recruitment process (online version)
This online report shares findings from a research project looking at ageism in the recruitment process from the perspective of older workers.
With more of us wanting or needing to work for longer, it is increasingly important for people to be able to move or change jobs as they age. Widespread job losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic make it even more critical that older workers are able to access job opportunities on a fair and equal basis This online report shares findings from a mixed method research project on ageism in the recruitment process from the perspective of older workers (here defined as those aged 50 to 69).
This research was composed of interviews with 55 individuals aged 50 to 69 from a range of different sectors in different regions of England with a recent experience of the recruitment process. The second phase was a nationally representative survey of 1,539 adults.
The recruitment process doesn’t work for many older workers
Many older workers feel disadvantaged by their age in the recruitment process.
Research participants highlighted an array of both subtle and less subtle examples of disadvantage and discrimination. For example, one participant described a situation in which they were “taken aback” when a potential employer told them that they were “looking for someone younger because we actually feel they would fit more to the job”.
Our survey research also showed that you are more likely to be discriminated against on the basis of age if you are from a Black and Minority Ethnic background (34% versus 18% for those from White backgrounds).
Older workers are being stereotyped in the recruitment process
Many older workers are suspicious about the negative stereotypes that employers have about them.
Having ‘too much’ experience
Research participants felt that employers saw them as having ‘too much’ experience for roles that they were entirely suitable for. For example, one participant described being told that they were “a little too experienced, really, to be coming into the role [and that] on this occasion we’re going to find somebody that we can train into the position”. For him, this was just a euphemism for “you’re too old”.
Length of time in the job
Another common stereotype faced by participants was the idea that they wouldn’t stay in a new job very long, even though many had no plans to retire in the near future. For example, in an interview one person was asked “how long [do] you want the job for?”. This was clearly “an indication… [that] their minds already thinking, ‘well you may only want it six months or a year, then we are going to have to start all over again’”.
Being less ambitious, having less commitment and being less adaptable
There were a wide range of desires and expectations with regards to work among those we interviewed. Despite this, their motivations and ambitions are often called into question by employers. As one participant to put it: “I just feel that some people are of the opinion you’re not fired up, you’re not ambitious… I’m nearly 60, I’m still ambitious. I still want to be successful at what I do”.
Being less physically and mentally able
Research participants were occasionally asked – either directly or indirectly – questions “about durability [including things like] illness, level of fitness, nutrition [which], when you put all together… [was about] how you handle yourself in life and can [we] rely on you when we need you?”.
Employers and recruiters must avoid making assumptions about older workers on the basis of stereotypes:
Older workers are a diverse group with a wide range of expectations and desires for jobs and careers. Assumptions should not be made about how long and individual plans to stay in a job, whether they can develop and grow into a role, or if they are less physically or mentally able on the basis of their age.
Ageism operates at every stage of the recruitment process
It was unclear exactly which part of the recruitment process was the most problematic from our search, it would appear that disadvantage discrimination can be experienced at any stage.
Language in job advertisements
Research participants often described problematic language in job advertisements: “I have seen wording like that and immediately think… Whoever has written that has already got a bias, and therefore you’re not really interested in getting involved in that.”
Employers should carefully consider the way in which they frame and word job advertisements:
The language used within job specifications and advertisements can be perceived as biased by older workers. The language in framing of job advertisements needs to be as age neutral as possible.
Applying for jobs
Many participants felt that they were getting invited back to fewer and fewer interviews as they got older, despite having the skills and experience for the roles they were applying for:
“There are jobs that I’ve applied for and I’ve thought, ‘oh, I definitely should get this one’, or at least get an interview because I’ve ticked all the boxes, but then I haven’t even had an interview. I have thought, ‘hmm, that could be my age.”
Employers should ensure that tools used within the application process do not present additional challenges to older workers:
Standardised application forms which ask for things like full working history can disadvantage older workers. They can be very time consuming to fill in and often will give an indication of someone’s age without any age being given. All application tools should therefore aim to be “age-blind”.
Using recruitment agencies
Research participants had a mixed experience, with some finding recruitment agencies helpful in securing work and others finding them as ageist as some employers:
"They would say something along the lines of I'm a ‘bit older’ and I've ‘only had experience at one workplace. How do you know what's evolved in the past couple of years’ because I've only been at one company? So they would question my ability to adapt to a new role based on the fact that I'd been at a company for five years.”
Bad experiences in job interviews were relatively common for research participants. Often this was quite subtle and related to a feeling that they were not being taken seriously or that the process was rigged. Occasionally it was a bit more explicit. In one job interview the interviewer made a joke about the date of the interviewees work experience: “1985, I wasn’t even born then!”. At the time the interviewee laughed along with the interviewer, but in hindsight felt very embarrassed about it and worried about future job interviews.
Employers should ensure that interview panels are as diverse and inclusive as possible:
A lack of age diversity on interview panels can lead to older candidates feeling ‘out of place’ and at a disadvantage as compared to younger candidates. This can lead to a loss of confidence which may in turn negatively affect interview performance. Interview panels must therefore be as diverse as possible to ensure that interviewees feel like there is a level playing field.
Employers should ensure that staff have the necessary skills to reduce bias in the interview process:
Interviewers should be mindful of the way in which they conduct interviews, particularly in terms of how an interview begins. A lack of engagement from the very start can make candidates feel as if employer interest – which was indicated by being invited to interview – has been lost due to a candidate’s appearance (including indications of their age). This can affect candidate’s confidence and therefore interview performance.
Ageism in the recruitment process has a negative impact on older workers
It is clear from our research that older workers are negatively affected by ageism in the recruitment process in a number of different ways.
Impact on individual psychology and identity
Many research participants described reduced self-esteem and lower levels of confidence following experience of ageism the recruitment process:
“It made me feel just slightly inferior. It makes you question yourself. Should I be sat here? Should I be applying for jobs? It makes you think, should I just stick at what I’ve got, now I am this age? It doesn’t fill you with loads of confidence.”
Impact on behaviour
When research participants described how they would change their behaviour either due to reduced confidence or in direct response to problems they had faced in previous recruitment experiences. One male research participant said that they now “where make-up” which makes them “look a little bit younger” and “try to hide” their “grey hairs” to generally alter their appearance “outwardly as well as inwardly… purely [as] an effort to look more attractive to the working market”.
Ageism affects all ages
Although no younger workers were interviewed as part of this research, the nationally representative survey indicated that ageism in the recruitment process is something that affects both those who are older and younger.
Many older workers feel disadvantaged or discriminated against within the recruitment process because of their age. These experiences have wide-ranging effects on older workers’ confidence, health, and financial security.
For many participants, the process of being stereotyped and rejected for jobs on the basis of age bias becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in which experiences of ageism in the recruitment process stops them trying to get a job.
This needs to change. As such, this research indicates a set of key principles that employers and recruiters should embed within their recruitment processes. These include:
- Regular collection and scrutiny of demographic data from the recruitment process
- Avoiding making assumptions about older workers on the basis of stereotypes
- Careful consideration of the framing and wording of job advertisements
- Ensuring tools used within the application process do not discriminate or disadvantage particular age groups
- Ensuring the interview panels are as diverse and inclusive as possible
- Ensuring that interviewing staff have the necessary skills to reduce bias and avoid discrimination
As well as these principles new, more age-inclusive recruitment processes, techniques and tools are also required.
The Centre for Ageing Better is committed to working with employers and recruiters to develop and test new approaches so that in future no one is disadvantaged at recruitment (or other stages of employment) because of their age. These changes are vital if we are to create an age diverse workforce and ensure that older workers are not left behind as the economy recovers and new job opportunities are created.