Prime age recruitment: the challenges for age discrimination legislation.
Over the last 30 years there has been a steady decline in the labour force participation of older workers. This has been due to at least two factors: early retirement incentives, often complemented or facilitated by government policies; and, to active discrimination or ageism. (2) This active discrimination may be based on a "taste for discrimination" (3) and bias against older workers. Alternatively, it may occur when raters do not have the cognitive resources to inhibit their use of stereotypes. (4) Such stereotypes provide a misleading framework for thinking about older workers so offer a very poor proxy for predicting the contribution they can make to the workplace. (5)
British researchers (6) have found that negative attitudes towards older workers often lack an evidential basis, especially given that there are generally greater within-age group differences than there are between-age group differences. (7) However, there are some areas in which older people have been found to perform less well. These have mostly tended to be in laboratory settings on tasks that bear little relationship to tasks performed in the workplace. Older workers are known to be less effective in high paced repetitive work and in work requiring physical labour but, overall, when the strengths of older workers are taken into account (reliability, conscientiousness, working well in teams, thinking before they act, lower turnover, flexibility in terms of hours, innovative in applying their experience to new situations, fewer absences etc), there can be no rational argument that older workers are less qualified for employment in respect to most jobs.
1 Consequences Of Reduced Participation By Older Workers
The consequences of reduced participation in the workforce of older workers, whether this be due to discrimination or other factors, are many and varied. At the societal level, given that people are living longer, having fewer children and retiring sooner, the future will find fewer workers per retired person, and probably prohibitive pension and healthcare costs. (8) At the business level, due to demographic changes, there will be a decline in the actual number of available entry-level workers, (9 10 11) so employers are likely to have difficulty in recruiting sufficient skilled employees. Therefore, ageist practices by employers--in which merit is not the key criterion--are likely to be counter-productive.
At the individual level, this is an important human rights issue that goes not only to the right to quality of life (which includes employment in our society) but, with increasing inflation and increasing health care costs, older adults are often feel compelled to try to remain in the workforce or to re-enter the workforce at older ages. (12) With increases in the age of pension eligibility, (13 14) many may no longer have a choice about working. Yet, in general, older people still experience longer periods of unemployment, have the lowest reemployment probabilities, suffer from high probabilities of part-time employment, experience the largest wage losses, (15 16 17 18 19) and suffer disproportionately in redundancy programs. (20) Thus age discrimination in employment has become a serious issue for everyone, not just for older persons.
2 The Salience Of Age
Dealing with this issue is far from simple. Although irrational from a business perspective, age discrimination is deeply ingrained in both western and eastern societies. (21 22 23) In 1988, Lawrence, in her article New wrinkles in the theory of age, (24) pointed out that evaluating and comparing employee ages is an everyday pastime in organizations. She later wrote: "Age acts as a coat rack on which people hang norms, values and expectations", (25) even though many age expectations are thought to occur at the subconscious level. (26) Age has high salience so it is difficult to avoid. Age is easily 'identified' by the use of physical cues such as facial characteristics (facial and cranial hair and skin texture) and by vocal characteristics, both of which generally covary with age. (27) Age is a matching device both in employment and in social life. (28 29)
3 Age Discrimination In Employment
Although some have argued that that age discrimination is difficult to detect, (30) there is considerable evidence of its existence. While employers argue that age plays no part in their decision-making, studies show that they do use age to evaluate candidates. (31) In the United Kingdom, the application of age, particularly in recruitment and selection, has been found to be a frequently used informal decision mechanism. (32) Other British studies have found that up to 25 per cent of people say that they have suffered from some form of discrimination and that age discrimination is the most common form. (33)
(a) Australian Age Discrimination Research
Australian researchers have reported on a series of studies that attempted to examine the roles of the various players in the system of age discrimination in the recruitment and selection process. (34 35) More recently they have examined the role of the applicant in potentially aiding and abetting discrimination in the recruitment process. (36 37) The resulting picture is one of discrimination in the recruitment and selection process in which employers typically age stereotype jobs. They advertise these jobs either independently or through the use of recruitment agencies, and while these advertisements no longer contain explicit indications of age limits for recruits, they still provide numerous clear messages about the preferred age range through the use of "age specific descriptors" (e.g. young environment etc). Potential recruits may screen themselves out upon reading discriminatory advertisements; some apply for jobs but either include their age or provide sufficient information for this assessment to be made easily; some are screened out by recruitment agents during telephone inquires or once resumes are submitted--these agents are acting upon either their own stereotypes or on the stated or implicit directions of their clients (employers), and so the process continues. (38)
(b) Prime Age Recruiting
Age discrimination operates at both the younger end of the continuum and at the "older" end (39) but the focus here is on discrimination in respect to older workers. The term "older" begins to operate in employment at different points for men and women. (40 41) Some jobs in which women predominate are notoriously allied to 'youth'--hairdressing, secretarial work, modelling, sex work, etc whilst jobs where men predominate have less emphasis on 'looks' insofar as this concept is applied to women. Even 'male' jobs that require physicality seem to have a far broader age-spread--for example, road workers vary in age, although it may be thought that 'young' men only need apply, similarly with factory work, executives, heads and upper echelons of government departments, academics (upper echelons in particular are mostly old or older males). Age limits for jobs also vary, depending upon the country of origin and the sample used, but in Europe, age discrimination seems to start at 45 years or earlier in terms of employers being prepared to hire workers. (42)
The age range of interest to employers appears to quite narrow. For example, Loretto, Duncan and White (43) refer to as "prime age labour" or the 25-35 age group as the age group employers prefer to hire. The support for this notion is growing. For example, in the United Kingdom, McGoldrick and Arrowsmith's (44) summary of the research found that the upper age limit for positions varied between 40 and 50 years, but their own study found a mean upper age limit of 37.1 years. In Australia, a Queensland-based team (45) found that employers preferred 26 to 35-year-olds for almost all categories of employment. Victorian-based research also indicated that recruitment agents, when recruiting for secretarial positions, were most interested in those of 25 years of age, followed jointly by those 23 and 30 years of age. (46) Only two out of 180 recruitment consultants in this study thought that those above 37 years would be suitable to employers, even though the average age for a female secretary in the state in which the study was carried out was 36.38 years. (47) (At this time there was state-based age discrimination legislation and the federal Age Discrimination Act 2004 did not exist.)
An analysis of the advertisements used in this Victorian study revealed clear age targeting. A separate study had secretaries rate the individual words used in the advertisements indicating that words such as "buzzy", "fast-paced", "go-getter", "high-flyer", "can-do", "switched-on" and "on-the-ball", "recent graduate", "at least 2 years experience", "flexibility", "dynamic approach", and benefits relating to "gym" and education were associated with the early 20's age target; "dedicated", "hard working", "loyal", "unflappable", "down-to-earth", and "common-sense approach" were associated with the late 30's age target; and experience at a "senior level" and a "mature" approach were associated with the over 50's age group. (48)
Given that over 90 per cent of advertisements for secretaries in this study conveyed a "defined" age expectation, (49) the connotations for prospective applicants were clear. Even without blatant references to age, the wording could easily have deterred potential applicants from even inquiring about jobs, let alone applying--that is, they might screen themselves out on the basis of age. Further study is required to understand how these processes work.
4 Job Advertisements
The job advertisement, one of the most common methods of recruitment, (50) has been widely criticized. (51) Although there is general agreement that the purpose of the advertisement is to attract suitably qualified candidates and to encourage them to apply while acting to screen out those who are likely to be deemed unsuitable, (52) strong views exist about what should or should not be included. The main point of contention appears to be whether the desired personal attributes should be mentioned. Eighty per cent of advertisements for personnel positions have been found to contain some reference to personal attributes and their use increased over the ten year span of the study. (53) Yet, even though the specification of age limits for jobs is unlawful in some countries, it is not always overt and some greenfield-sites have been reported as recruiting on the basis of age and personal attributes rather than skills. (54) Given that employers have age preferences, and given that it is generally unlawful to publish age requirements for jobs (there are some exceptions), it might then be expected that job advertisements will contain covert messages about age limits, as appeared to be the case in the Victorian-based study. (55) Moreover, it appears that potential candidates prefer to see this type of information in advertisements; (56) they use whatever information is provided to assess their potential similarity to the firm that has the vacancy. Most candidates do not wish to invest their resources into applying for a position if they are unlikely to meet the employer's image for the position.
Whether or not the inclusion of personal attributes adds any value to potential applicants, it has been suggested that their inclusion might also have a more sinister side, in that they might act as a form of covert discrimination. For example, it has been pointed out that recruitment advertisements can be discriminatory in respect to the type of copy used--who is portrayed and who is omitted will affect whether potential applicants feel that they will be compatible with the firm. (57) There have been more specific claims that advertisements contained implicit ageism (58) and evidence of words with ageist overtones have been noted. (59) Overall, though, recruitment advertising has attracted little attention in the study of discrimination in employment which is somewhat surprising given that the 1990s saw a great deal of attention being paid to diversity management. (60)
II EMPIRICAL STUDIES
To follow-up on earlier Australian research on job advertisements and age targeting, two further studies were carried out to test perceptions of job advertisements and to examine how, when instructed, recruitment consultants and human resource managers might word age-targeted advertisements. Both studies received Human Ethics Committee approval.
A Study 1
Human resource managers, identified from the Victorian section of the Australian Human Resource Institute member directory, were invited to participate in a study which involved both their rating of a series of ten secretarial advertisements (randomly selected from those used in earlier research (61)) and the recruitment of a line manager and a secretary employed in their organization to perform the same task. In each case the identifying characteristics of the recruitment agency responsible for the advertisement had been deleted. Responses were provided in sealed envelopes to the contact person in each case and returned unopened to the researcher in a reply-paid envelope. Respondents were asked to indicate the most likely age category of the successful applicant based on the content of each advertisement. The age categories provided began at 16 years and were categorized in 7-year increments, with the final age provided being 65 years. The final sample of 123 comprised 22 per cent human resource managers, 25 per cent line managers and 53 per cent secretaries.
1 Results and Discussion
A fairly clear pattern emerged (see Table 1) in that the predicted age of successful applicants (based on earlier work in which the simple addition of the words identified as having age connotations was used to classify jobs into age categories), most of the advertisements targeted those between 23 years and 37 years, although 31 per cent of raters indicated that advertisement number 10 may have resulted in 44+ year olds being acceptable. One explanation is that just as age discrimination has been given a low priority in advertising consumer products, where the buying power of older people has been forgotten in the mainstream media, (62 63) older workers may simply have been forgotten in recruitment advertising. It is also possible that while marketers want older people to buy their products employers may not want to employ older workers!
In terms of the preferred age group for a secretary in the businesses represented by the participants, 75 per cent suggested that secretaries should be 30 years of age or younger. Only 14 per cent indicated that there was no age preference in their organisation.
This study provides support for the earlier findings showing that job advertisements do contain fairly clear ageist messages, and that there is age stereotyping in this job category.
B Study 2
As part of a broader study, in order to determine whether age-related words can be purposively and consciously in advertisements, the sample of human resource managers and recruitment managers was asked to design 6 advertisements--3 of which related to attracting candidates of either 23 years, 37 years or 51 years. (All but one agreed, raising serious questions about the impact of (age) discrimination laws and education and training of recruitment agents. The recruitment agent who refused to do this said it would not only be unethical but 'illegal'.)
1 Results and Discussion
The phrases used by respondents were divided into the following categories: characteristics of the firm/environment; career opportunity; desired applicant characteristics; and salary/length of experience. (Skills required were also included but are not relevant to this discussion.) Where the exact wording was used more than once it is indicated in the numbers in brackets following the phrase.
(a) Characteristics of the Firm/Environment
Target: Early 20's This progressive young company is looking for someone who is ready to move on; modern thinking organisation; vibrant fast-paced environment; bright, dynamic, fast-paced company; young team; team environment; be part of our dynamic team; work with a young and switched on marketing team; modern offices (2); social (2); social club; on the job training provided; extensive training; provides outstanding internal and external customer service; own transport (....not well served by public transport).
Target: Late 30's Friendly professional organisation; conservative environment; parking etc.; flexible hours of work.
Target: early 50's Quiet environment; stable role; distinguished and traditional organisation; take your time; secure.
(b) Salary/Length of Experience/ Career Stage/Opportunity
Target: early 20's 28K; excellent negotiable salary; ideal for trainee, someone with 1-2 years secretarial experience; junior secretary with a minimum of 2 years experience; 3-5 years experience; you will have had some experience in a junior role and are now looking for the next step; extensive experience not required; expand your skills; learn as you go; excellent opportunity to move into that next role and develop your career as a secretary; job will lead to further employment opportunities; great opportunity to gain experience; an opportunity exists for a junior secretary, career opportunities, looking for career opportunity; the perfect appointment to realise your full potential career opportunity; start your career; graduate opportunity; entry level position; opportunities for promotion; growth opportunities are numerous; move up the ladder; opportunity to grow; take a step up you've outgrown your first job and seek more responsibility; take your second career step; take the next step; grow into the role ready to take the next step.
Target: late 30's SEC $36; attractive salary package; senior secretarial position; "senior"; mature person with extensive background; back to the workforce; previous experience at senior secretarial level; extensive experience required; able to supervise junior staff; experienced secretary; experienced; minimum of 6 years experience; experienced in a range of sectors; extensive experience in a similar capacity; some experience in a secretarial role; senior secretary with at least 15 years experience in the administration field; min 10+ years experience in secretarial role; minimum 8-10 years experience; experienced; substantial experience; previous experience assisting at senior level; extensive experience; preferably a background at a senior level in similar type role; interact at senior level; experienced and skilled secretary to manage two senior managers; proven career history in a similar field highly regarded; looking for advancement and challenge; consolidate your career.
Target: early 50's Well-established secretary; at last you can assist at senior level for someone who values good old-fashioned dedication and commitment; your years of experience at senior secretarial level will certainly be appreciated in this role; extensive experience required gained through a long standing career; very experienced secretary; vast knowledge and experience; solid experience; a minimum of 6 years experience; experienced in a range of sectors; extensive experience spanning 20 years or more; minimum 10+ years experience in secretarial role (perhaps stretch experience required); wealth of experience; experienced; highly experienced; when you started you were possibly a steno, now you are a private secretary who can offer a wealth of experience assisting at senior level; utilise your extensive experience as a senior secretary; consolidate the mass of previous work exposure and commercial knowledge; extensive experience; utilise your extensive experience; your years of experience will hold you in good stead here; ability to take shorthand; strong dictation and shorthand skills, 100 wpm; you've been there and done it so nothing this executive can 'throw' at you will faze you; professional (2); might use the word 'mature'; someone who can provide maturity and direction to the office; you will have seen everything and now be ready for a 'mature' mentoring role; mature; keen to bring to the office their mature outlook; mature private secretary; mature; mature minded; make this your last job; security and longevity; secure position; 'no use by date'; are you in the later stages of your career; career minded secretary; senior secretary; client is looking for senior secretary he/she can relate to.
(c) Desired Characteristics
Target: Early 20's Energetic (2); lively; well presented; enthusiastic; vibrant personality; your bright young personality, excellent skills and corporate appearance will help you achieve your goal; seeks a dynamic and highly skilled secretary to manage diverse middle level management team go-getter; flexible approach to achieving work requirements; flexible; thrive on variety; organised person; able to prioritise workload and self manage; willing to go the extra mile; good interpersonal skills; team oriented; ability to cope with pressure and meet deadlines; strong administration and people skills; excellent time management skills and organisational skills.
Target: late 30's Responsibility; reliable; ready for the job that says who you are and what you can do; maturity counts; be valued for your confident mature approach; mature minded; mature outlook; enthusiastic; flexible approach to achieving work requirements; thrive on variety; organised; willing to go the extra mile; peak performer; professional; requires strong administration and people skills; ability to work with senior manager essential; ability to work under pressure; ability to work overtime (is unlikely but possible inclusion); good technical skills; a solid role with a challenge focussed on establishing the right life/work balance for the successful individual; long term secure position.
Target: early 50's Requires strong administration and people skills; organised; willing to go the extra mile; ability to manage senior directors; ability to totally organise two unorganised individuals essential; well developed skills; responsible; reliable; enthusiastic; flexible approach to achieving work requirements; thrive on variety; consistent approach.
(d) Other Comments Under Each of the Age Targets
Target: Early 20's If I was convinced that it was a legitimate requirement but I would take a fair bit of convincing that early 20s was essential. Quoting salary will often determine the experience/age of applicants.
Target: Late 30's We would not structure the advert to meet this additional criteria; we would never seek to employ a person from a particular age group. Our aim would be to secure the services of a competent person with the skills and capabilities needed to do the job.
Target: early 50's We would not structure the advert to meet this additional criteria.
Salary, years of experience required, descriptors of the environment and personal characteristics all combined to provide clear ageist messages in the advertisements. Even though some respondents were clearly uncomfortable about age targeting, this small study illustrates how age targeting can occur in a single job category in which age should have no relevance.
Together, these two studies provide additional support for earlier findings that suggest that job advertisements are an important element deserving close attention in the process of detecting age discrimination in employment in Australia. State legislation such as that in Victoria (64) and the new federal Age Discrimination Act 2004 make it unlawful, in most cases, for job advertisements to contain age limits and for employers and their agents to require information about the age of recruits. The advertisements used in the first study did not contain age limits nor was there any suggestion that recruits should provide their age in their applications, but age targeting was still perceived by those who assessed the advertisements. Similarly, when asked to structure advertisements to target particular age groups the wording was found to be consistent with the type of words previously assessed as having age connotations. (65)
There is a limited amount that age discrimination legislation can do about these issues--they are perceptual in nature and subject to varied interpretations. But, there is considerable evidence to show that employees use age in their decision-making, sometimes at the subconscious level. It has also now been demonstrated over a number of studies that at least part of age discrimination is overt--direct questioning about age in screening interviews, statements about employer age preferences, and the use of wording with age connotations in advertisements. However, much of the process may be so deeply ingrained that change will be difficult. According to some writers, (66) ageist attitudes do not appear to be changing very much even though the business case for equal opportunity is fairly incontrovertible. Thus, the entire system in which age discrimination occurs needs to be addressed to achieve equity for older workers, and particularly for older job seekers. This will require awareness raising and education of the society generally, and specific education of job applicants, recruitment agents and human resource managers, and employers.
Anti-discrimination legislation is one way to signal the importance of the issue and to bring some consistency across states that have varying legislation is respect to age discrimination in employment in Australia. Australia might be seen as leading the world in respect to its state anti-discrimination laws, although the Age Discrimination Act 2004 is perhaps more limited than some believe necessary to have any real impact, e.g. age needs to be the dominant reason for discrimination under this legislation rather than simply one of the reasons. The primary characteristics that makes it noteworthy is that it provides some degree of protection for all workers irrespective of their age, whereas, in the USA, for example, apart from in a few states, the protection provided is only for those over 40 years of age. (67) However, too much reliance on the effectiveness of legislation should not occur. The awareness levels of the existing age discrimination legislation (e.g. in Victoria, where the earlier studies were carried out), and its perceived relevance and impact, indicate that employers are unlikely to be greatly influenced by the legislation. (It is noted that the impact may well vary across jurisdictions.)
Therefore, even though the provisions within the new federal legislation of promoting recognition and acceptance of the principle that people of all ages should have the same rights and its aim to change the negative stereotypes about older people are positive, much more is needed. Further guidance is needed in respect to how job advertisements might be prepared such they will not be perceived by potential recruits as ageist. Additional advice to employers is also probably necessary on how to set up their recruitment and selection processes to ensure that short listing staff are "blind" to age considerations. (68) Along with community education, grievance processes need to be simplified too as most people do not lodge grievances about discrimination (69) and job applicants need to be made aware of their potential role in aiding and abetting unlawful discrimination when they provide details of their age in their applications. (70)
Finally, some clear guidelines should be made available for employers so that they can gain a greater understanding of the potential costs they might incur in the event of an unlawful discrimination claim (although this is somewhat difficult in the civil jurisdiction).
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LYNNE BENNINGTON (1)
(1) B. App. Sc (Psych), B.S.W., Grad. Dip. Psych, MBA, PhD; Professor and Head of School of Management, RMIT University, GPO Box 2476V, Melbourne, Victoria, 3001. fax: 0399255952; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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(8) The Australian Financial Review reported that the number of workers per retired person will more than halve, from 5.3 to 2.5, by 2042 in Australia, (5 September, 2003)
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(18) Chan and Stevens, above n 16
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(31) Lawrence, above n 26
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(38) Bennington, above n 34
(39) Bennington and Wein, above n 35
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(46) Bennington, above n 34
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(48) Bennington, above n 34
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(55) Bennington, above n 34
(56) Redman and Mathews, above n 52
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(58) C. Tillsley, The Impact of Age upon Employment (Warwick Papers in Industrial Relations No. 33) (1991)
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(61) Bennington, above n 34
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(64) Equal Opportunity Act 1995 (Vic)
(65) see Bennington, above n 34
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(67) J.A. Burns, 'Should the ADEA Protect Persons Under Age 40?' (1999) 24 Employee Relations Journal135
(68) Bennington and Wein, above n 37
(69) Bennington and Wein, above n 35
(70) Bennington and Wein, above n 37
Table 1 Advert. Pre- 16 23 30 37 No. rating * yrs yrs yrs yrs % % % % 1 30's 32 60 6 2 30's 10 40 38 3 30's 21 56 19 4 20's 5 72 20 3 5 20's 5 42 33 6 30's 2 43 40 7 20's 2 68 28 2 8 20's 1 57 33 6 9 20's 45 39 11 10 30's 1 12 53 Relative 8 313 373 211 weighting Advert. 44 51 58 65 Unclear No. yrs yrs yrs yrs 'Ad' % % % % rating 1 1 2 11 1 3 3 1 4 5 15 4 6 14 1 7 2 2 8 2 1 9 2 2 2 10 27 3 1 3 Relative 76 7 1 14 weighting
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|Publication:||Elder Law Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2004|
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