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Are Employers Guilty of Blatant Age Discrimination?

A headhunter discusses this issue with PBS NewsHour’s Paul Solman and offers advice to older job applicants

By Paul Solman | August 7, 2013
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Paul Solman is the business and economics correspondent for PBS NewsHour. He has taught at Harvard Business School, Yale University and Brandeis University and his reporting has won multiple Peabody and Emmy awards.

A version of this article previously appeared on the PBS NewsHour site.

Is age discrimination a hushed secret or a blatant action by employers filling vacant jobs? That question was recently posed to PBS NewsHour Business and Economics correspondent Paul Solman, who discussed the topic with Nick Corcodilos (author of the “Ask the Headhunter” column for the PBS NewsHour site).

James, of New York, asks Paul Solman: Why aren't you addressing blatant age discrimination? We have millions out of work, and they are being denied jobs not because of the skill set, but because the younger hiring managers won't hire them or pay them. I had changed careers by 36, and by 38 I was facing ageism. What is being done about that? The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission isn't really reaching people with public service announcements about age discrimination either.

Paul Solman: A blatant question about blatant age discrimination deserves a blatant response. Our job expert, Nick "Ask the Headhunter" Corcodilos, gave one in an interview for a PBS NewsHour story. Here is the transcript from our discussion:

2 Types of Age Discrimination

Solman: How big a problem is age discrimination? Are people just using it as an excuse for the fact that they're older and can't get jobs because their skills are obsolete?

(MORE: What it Takes to Win an Age Discrimination Suit)

Nick Corcodilos: There is age discrimination, but I think there are two kinds. One is when the employer is discriminating for specific reasons and doing it intentionally. For example, I had one human resources (HR) executive explain to me, "Older workers just have a shorter shelf life. They're probably not going to be on the job as long as a younger one, so we really try to be careful about who we're hiring." It's always with sort of a wink and a nod.

The other kind of age discrimination is where you have managers who really aren't looking to discriminate but feel a little on edge because the candidate they're talking to is older. Sometimes they can even smell age concern on the part of the candidate, and they wind up discriminating almost unconsciously.

How Age Discrimination Hurts Employers

Solman: It's obvious that age discrimination hurts older workers. But you have argued that it hurts employers even more.

Corcodilos: Employers don't seem to be calculating the cost of age discrimination to them when they practice it.

You'll get companies who on the one hand tell us they're losing this great institutional knowledge and that they worry about baby boomers growing older and retiring and taking all this expertise away. Meanwhile, they're actually recruiting in a way that discourages hiring older workers and turns them away.

The point is, whether they're doing it tacitly or implicitly, employers are discriminating against older workers. And then they are actually complaining about the fact that the folks who are working today are growing older, that baby boomers are starting to retire, that they're losing all this institutional knowledge and expertise.

(MORE: Why Aren’t Older Unemployed Americans Getting Hired?)

So there's just a huge disconnect, and I think that stems from the fact that HR practices and good business practices just don't walk hand in hand anymore.

What HR is Doing Wrong

Solman: Why would this disjunction be occurring? How can an employer say, "We need institutional knowledge" and then discriminate against older workers by pushing them out or not hiring other older workers with institutional or knowledge or experience?

Is it just that they don't think? Is it all subliminal and they don't realize what they're doing?

Corcodilos: Well, on a strategic level, employers really are behaving stupidly.

Look at how they do recruiting: This automated process under which they will publish a job description chock-full of so-called "keywords" and then have software algorithms that attempt to match applicants to the resumes against those keywords.

Where in the keyword collection do we capture institutional knowledge? No one advertises for that.

The problem is they are turning away valuable candidates through this process. Only a human being would be able to assess whether candidates are capable of sharing and disseminating institutional knowledge to help newer and younger workers.

The right person applies for the job electronically, but the algorithm kicks them out, so they lose that individual.

Employers’ Overuse of Job Boards

Solman: Are you suggesting that the whole push towards maximizing shareholder value of the past few decades is self-defeating for companies because it has made them cut their HR budgets to a point where they just aren't getting good people anymore?

Corcodilos: No. What I'm suggesting is that HR departments in most companies have become so detached — have become such a bureaucracy — that they have become clueless. They don't realize the processes they have put in place have very little to do with recruiting, retaining and bringing on talent.

(MORE: How Women Job Seekers Can Beat Age Discrimination)

They could solve the problem tomorrow if they stopped soliciting millions of applicants through job boards. If they went back to using personal contacts and having their own employees go out there to find, recruit and bring in good people, they could personalize the process, make it more intelligent, more pragmatic. And guess what? Better for stockholders.

How Older Workers’ Pay Fits In

Solman: But does that explain older-worker discrimination?

Corcodilos: To a significant extent, but not entirely.

I really think you cannot separate the money from the age. When employers discriminate over age, they're also discriminating over money. Older workers tend to make more money, especially the higher up you go, and companies don't want to spend the money. They want to spend less.

Peter Cappelli of The Wharton School has done research on this and has demonstrated that companies seem to be looking for employees who can do X, Y and Z, who can hit the ground running immediately — the perfect candidate — but they don't want to pay the market rates.

Advice for Job Applicants

Solman: So what's an older worker to do? Accept lower pay, I guess. Any strategic advice?

Corcodilos: I really don't think that an older worker can stop age discrimination, but you can successfully distract the employer from that issue if you focus on the reason they really want to hire you. That can make you more successful — but it's up to you to demonstrate that.

Realize there are really two costs to employers of not filling a job promptly. One is the job remains undone. The other is they're missing out on phenomenal skills and capabilities of experienced older job hunters: wealth of knowledge, expertise, seasoning, maturity. Companies need to be reminded of that.

But remember, the word "discrimination" isn't always pejorative.

When an employer discriminates because an older worker lacks certain kinds of skills that are important in the market today, then it's almost a legitimate form of discrimination because the employer is just trying to figure out who can actually get the job done.

So there are some older workers — probably a lot — who simply don't have the skills or the wherewithal to do a certain kind of job.

It’s up to those workers to bring themselves up to speed and do it as quickly as possible.