October 1, 2019

Advocating for the Overqualified: Tips for HR Managers on Combatting Age Bias in the Workplace

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As companies focus on building diverse and inclusive work environments, one often overlooked area is diversity of age.

Many companies struggle with effectively recruiting, developing, and retaining employees across generations. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “Unfounded assumptions about age and ability continue to drive age discrimination in the workplace.” However, managing and mitigating age bias is a critical component of overall workforce management because today’s workforce is a multigenerational one, including baby boomers (1946-1964), Generation X (1965-1980), millennials (1981-1997), and Generation Z (1997-present).

While stereotypes about each generation are plentiful (and often the source of viral memes), none of these stereotypes help managers effectively lead multigenerational teams or HR pros advocate for internal or external candidates who do not fit the perceived or implied age profile for a role.

Employers cannot afford to pass on workers over 50 based on perceived misconceptions about their abilities, especially not in a labor market rife with talent shortages. Unfortunately, older candidates and workers may be denied employment or promotions because of a variety of inaccurate assumptions. Unfounded concerns that an older worker would be “overqualified” for a position, wouldn’t want to work for a younger manager, lacks technology skills, or is too close to retirement often prevent organizations from making the best talent decisions.

It is up to HR managers to lead the charge to combat such age bias in the workplace. Here are some responses to those four common misconceptions about older workers that can help HR managers change the narrative:

1. Older Workers Are Overqualified

“But he’s overqualified for the position,” said the director of sales.

“Exactly. And he wants to work for us in this role. This means we can take advantage of his education and years of experience with other companies,” responded the HR manager.

The goal of any hiring process is to find the most qualified person who is the right fit for the organization. Classifying candidates as “overqualified” can often be a euphemism for age bias. HR managers should respond to this potential bias by asking, “Aside from overqualification, what other objections do you have?”

Often, the overqualified assumption is tied to concerns about the position not paying what the candidate is expecting. However, it is important not to disqualify a candidate who has the skills the company is looking for because of assumptions about compensation. Rather, the company should discuss with the candidate what the job pays and any other appealing perks, such as flexible scheduling, telecommuting options, or benefits unique to the company. Remember, it is the candidate who decides whether the compensation offered is sufficient.

For more expert HR advice, check out the latest issue of Recruiter.com Magazine:

2. Older Workers Don’t Want to Report to Younger Managers

“But she’s not going to want to report to me. I’m younger and have less experience,” said the director of sales.

“Good managers are able to supervise employees regardless of age, and you’re a good manager. Your team respects you, and you are true leader,”  said the HR manager.

Theoretically, young professionals start at entry-level jobs and work their way up, but that is not how every career looks today. Workers take time off for a variety of reasons — health, family, changing industries, going back to school, etc. As a result, sometimes the boss is younger than their direct reports and employees. In fact, in the US, nearly 40 percent of workers report to a younger boss.

When faced with a supervisor who thinks an older candidate will not want to report to a younger manager, an HR pro needs to understand this concern is often a manifestation of the manager’s own worries. HR managers can help younger bosses reframe their concerns by reminding them that they are in their positions because they have the skills and leadership abilities the organization needs in that role.

3. Older Workers Lack Technology Skills

“But we were looking for a digital native for this entry-level role,” argued the director of sales.

“This candidate is an early tech adopter and is looking for an entry-level position in a new industry,” countered the HR manager.

Hiring managers need to think again when concluding that older workers are not comfortable with technology. Technology is not a 21st century invention. Personal computers have been on the scene since the 1970s, so workers in their 50s and 60s have been adapting to technology for their entire careers. When faced with a request for a “digital native” — another term for millennials — HR managers should respond by shifting the hiring manager’s focus to the skills and talents the candidate can bring to a role, regardless of age.

4. Older Workers Are Too Close to Retirement, So Their Tenures Will Be Too Short

“But he’s not going to stay with the company long. I bet he wants to retire soon,” said the director of sales.

“So what? Employees of all ages have average tenures of 4-5 years,” replied the HR manager.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median tenure of all employees — regardless of age — is 4.2 years. Moreover, older workers often have longer tenures than younger workers.

When facing the short-tenure argument, HR managers can point to the specific turnover and tenure statistics of the company. Additionally, HR managers can draw attention to the fact that even if all employees were to automatically retire at 67, an employee who is 52, for example, has 15 years left to work.

In sum, HR managers facing potential age biases from hiring managers, particularly against older workers, have the opportunity and responsibility to change the narrative. Using these rebuttals, HR pros can overturn some of the most pernicious and persistent preconceptions driving age bias today.

Spring Taylor is an attorney in the Kansas City office of national labor and employment law firm Fisher Phillips. She can be reached at [email protected] or 816-460-0205.

Read more in Age Discrimination

Spring Taylor is an attorney in the Kansas City office of national labor and employment law firm Fisher Phillips. She can be reached at [email protected] or 816-460-0205.