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OPINION: When Workplace Bias Training Ignores Age Bias

Why I felt my employer's 'Managing Bias' online training was incomplete

By Howie Good

Do some forms of discrimination deserve priority over others? Or are all forms of discrimination equally wrong and equally deserving of correction?

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Credit: Adobe

I ask because at my workplace, and perhaps yours as well, there seems to exist a willful disregard of the presence of ageism.

I felt marginalized, diminished, invisible. Being blown off can do that to you.

Discrimination on the basis of age seems to be viewed as somehow less toxic than discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. Such a view of ageism just increases the level of toxicity.

The older I get, the more I have been made to feel at work that what I do — I am a professor — doesn't matter as much as it once did. Let me illustrate what I mean from a recent experience.

The 'Managing Bias' Training Program

I received an email from the college administration that faculty were required to complete an online training titled "Managing Bias." As someone who has endured 40 years of workplace trainings, it was not something I exactly looked forward to doing.

I had, in fact, been ignoring the periodic emails I'd gotten reminding me to do the training by the end of the month. My resistance must have been secretly weakening. I logged in to the training program.

It turned out to be a slick commercial product. Users were presented with a series of video vignettes portraying various types of bias. After each, you were asked how you would respond to the situation. You'd be congratulated if your response was appropriate and gently chided if it was not.

During the 90 minutes it took to complete, the training dramatized discriminatory behavior against women, people of color, religious minorities and LGBTQ people — and done so with Hollywood-style production values.

But moments after logging out, I belatedly realized something disturbing: The training made no reference to ageism.

The training had made no reference to ageism — not even a definition cribbed from Wikipedia: "Ageism...is stereotyping and/or discrimination against individuals or groups on the basis of their age. This may be casual or systematic. The term was coined in 1969 by Robert Neil Butler to describe discrimination against seniors, and patterned on sexism and racism."

Given that "Managing Bias" overlooked a form of bias that even Wikipedia recognizes, I thought it important to alert our Office of Human Resources, Diversity and Inclusion.

Contacting the HR, Diversity and Inclusion Department

So, I emailed an Associate Vice President there, noting the irony that a training on bias was itself biased. Little did I know that things were going to get more ironic.

A month later, I was still waiting for a reply and feeling that the "Office of Human Resources, Diversity, and Inclusion" was a misnomer. Just about the last thing I felt was included. I felt marginalized, diminished, invisible. Being blown off can do that to you.

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What was it Yeats wrote? "An aged man is but a paltry thing, / A tattered coat upon a stick, unless / Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing / For every tatter in its mortal dress. . ." My singing apparently grated on someone's ear.

So, When Are You Retiring?

This fits a common cultural stereotype of older people, seen as comically out of sync with their surroundings — bumbling creatures too feeble to realize their own inutility and irrelevance.

It's a view implicit in a question I am often asked at work: "So, when are you retiring?"

Younger administrators and faculty will, if they're lucky, eventually become older administrators and faculty. It is ironic — there's that word again — that they'd treat older colleagues as eminently disposable. They're perpetuating a mindset that one day will depreciate them as well.

Age is not a choice, but our attitudes toward aging are.

We can choose to view aging as a kind of disability and the aged as dry, empty husks. Or we can choose to recognize that even in a society infatuated with youth, age brings advantages: experience, perspective, mature judgment. Is there a workplace that cannot benefit from those?

I was told that, regrettably, ageism is a form of bias that does not get enough attention in "commercially available education tools."

The Response I Got

I did finally receive a response from the Associate VP, but only after I persuaded the state headquarters of our faculty union to apply pressure. She called the delay in responding to me "an oversight." I didn't believe her.

The rest of her response was no less slippery and demonstrated how difficult it will be to eliminate ageism on my campus and, perhaps, in many other workplaces, too.

I was told that, regrettably, ageism is a form of bias that does not get enough attention in "commercially available education tools"  like the one I was asked to use. But I was also told that while the college might study how to correct this oversight, there were limits on "customization of a commercial product."

Lastly, I was told I could always discuss my concerns with someone in the school's HR department, which is academe's favorite solution to pretty much everything, the substitution of talk (they might prefer the term "dialogue") for meaningful action.

I could have left it there. I didn't. The excuses offered only confirmed my belief that those in authority thought older people weren't worth the effort to nurture or protect. So, I wrote the Associate VP back, saying I didn't think any other form of discrimination on campus would be treated with a resigned shrug.

I am still waiting for a reply.

Howie Good has taught journalism for 37 years at SUNY-New Paltz. He is the author of more than 20 books. Read More
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