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The war for talent is still raging, with unemployment rates at a half-century low and employers bemoaning a dearth of qualified applicants. But you might not know that if you’re of a certain age.

Although we’ve all heard rumblings of age bias in hiring, the problem may be more widespread than previously thought. See, for example, employers unwittingly setting age criteria for targeted job ads on Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social platforms. As a result, job seekers in their 50s and above likely wouldn’t find those openings in their news feeds.

Age discrimination occurs in many ways. Sometimes (albeit rarely), it’s intentional. More often, it’s subtle and unconscious. Either way, and no matter the intent, ageism is hard to prove.

But when it is possible to prove age discrimination, the implications can be far-reaching. For one, there’s the monetary settlement, which can reach into the millions if systemic discrimination is found. In 2018, monetary resolutions for age discrimination lawsuits through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission totaled $77 million. Regardless of the outcome, there’s the time and expense of litigating the case — and that’s all before any negative publicity, which can take a toll on morale, productivity, retention, recruitment, and revenue.

Does Your Hiring Process Hold Up Under Scrutiny?

Any step in the selection process where applicants can pass or fail is subject to legal scrutiny. As such, employers are required to collect the necessary data to allow plaintiffs and government agencies to determine whether there are disparities in the passing rates of protected groups. Should a disparity exist, the employer is then required to justify the difference by arguing its validity.

The question, then, is whether your selection process holds up to this scrutiny. The following are four areas you should review to avoid age discrimination in the recruitment process:

1. Application Screening

Graduation dates and experience levels have been found to be proxies for age discrimination. Obviously, there will be positions for which a degree or a certain amount of experience is necessary, but the problem comes when you seek dates and set limits.

A much better option is to use properly developed preemployment assessments that evaluate an applicant’s relevant knowledge, skills, and abilities. Not only can these types of tests better predict job performance, but they can also reduce the risk of legal exposure. Properly developed tests tend to be litigated against less, and the decisions are based on more objective metrics.

If you’re attempting to set salary expectations with dates and caps, you’re often better served just including the pay range in the job ad. Think of it as an opportunity for applicants to self-screen.

Finally, a good rule of thumb is to be as detailed as possible when it comes to the desired skills and level of responsibility. The last thing you want is any sort of miscommunication regarding the position and the ideal candidate you seek.

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

2. Qualifications

No one needs to tell you that basing hiring decisions on qualifications is much different than basing them on assumptions, yet many hiring managers say they come to a decision about candidates within five minutes of meeting them. Not the best hiring practice.

Instead of letting your gut make decisions, use a series of checks and balances to reduce the potential of implicit bias. Let’s say culture fit is a concern. Seems harmless enough, but it could lead managers to unconsciously disqualify older candidates. It has been proven that recruiters lean on cultural similarities when evaluating others.

If a qualification is at all conceptual (like culture), make sure you clearly define what it means in a job-related way to your organization. You need to outline it and establish guidelines for deciding whether someone meets the defined criteria. Otherwise, you increase the risk of discrimination and will end up building a workforce that lacks diversity.

3. Recruitment Practices

Companies sometimes describe the type of person they seek in conjunction with the duties and responsibilities of the role. Sure, you always want to include the soft skills you’re looking for, but pay special attention to how you portray your ideal candidate.

Terms like “energetic” or “fresh-minded,” for example, can have discriminatory connotations, as they make it appear as if the company is seeking only young talent. Words like “driven” or “motivated” are much better options. Neither is tied to age.

Take a look at your website and recruitment materials. Do all the images showcase young workers? Are you requesting candidate information from which age can be determined? If so, perhaps you are sending a message that seasoned candidates need not apply.

4. Interviews

It isn’t uncommon for interview discussions to stray off course. After all, you want to get to know the candidate, so you might begin to chat about personal information. You’re now veering into dangerous territory.

Take a seemingly innocent question like, “How old are your children?” While you might genuinely want to know, you may be giving the impression that you’re trying to determine an applicant’s age — and you’ve just opened your company to risk.

Train hiring managers on keeping questions age-neutral. Better yet, standardize the interview process to remove all bias. Should the discussion move to personal matters, stress the importance of bringing it back to skills, experience, etc.

Also, if you interview using a panel, ask yourself, “What does my interview panel look like?” If it’s not age-diverse, make a change. It’s only natural to feel comfortable around applicants similar to yourself. Diversify the age of your panel to ensure not all hires will be of the same ilk.

Basing hiring decisions on an applicant’s job-related knowledge, skills, and abilities is the best way to avoid unlawful discrimination of any kind, but you still need to do your due diligence. Review each step within the hiring process to ensure age discrimination isn’t sneaking in.

Patrick Nooren, PhD, is the executive vice president of Biddle Consulting Group, Inc., which develops TestGenius.

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