Overcoming Bias Against Older Workers in Technology

Companies that have diversity, including age diversity, do better financially. Yet in the tech world, the bias against older workers remains strong. Mark Zuckerberg famously declared that “young people are just smarter,” which validated the pervasive fears of many tech workers that their older age will be held against them.

In a tight labor market, biases against older workers are even more costly than normal. Highly skilled labor is overlooked while positions go unfilled, or companies are forced to pay larger salaries to younger workers. By hiring older workers that other companies might snub, tech companies can not only do better financially, they can secure a competitive advantage in a competitive job market.

The good news for companies is biases about older people — that they don’t innovate or work as hard as their younger peers — have been debunked by research. The average age of a successful entrepreneur is 45, not 25, and there are more successful entrepreneurs over 55 than under 34, for example.

In addition, older tech workers are higher performing, with valuable skills and insights derived from years of business experience. They are also more loyal: once hired, they are significantly less likely to leave a job than their younger peers.

During the recruiting, interviewing and retention process, companies should take proactive steps to ensure that they don’t unduly funnel out older workers, or succumb to any implicit biases about older workers.

Recruiting

While employee referrals are valuable, companies should ensure they are not over relying on this mechanism to source new talent. Many of the top tech companies’ workers have a median age of 30 or under and many of their professional connections will be in the same age bracket.

Companies should make efforts to ensure that their recruiters, whether they are internal or external, are not passing over candidates simply because they have “too many” years of experience. Instead, applicants that appear overqualified should be asked why they want the position, and whether the compensation is in line with their expectations.

Applicants might have a valid personal or professional reason for why they are interested in a position that requires fewer years of experience, and hiring someone with more experience than expected can be a win-win for a company and an employee.

Recruiters should also be attuned to the applicant’s actual qualifications rather than make assumptions about their skills being “dated” based solely on their age. For example, some companies post ads looking for “digital natives,” falsely assuming that if an applicant graduated college decades ago, their tech skills could no longer be on the cutting-edge.

But many older tech workers have continued to evolve their skills, and an older worker might have moved into the latest, hottest field. Recruiters should be careful to look at the applicant’s recent experience and qualifications, not just make assumptions based on age.

Interviewing   

The interview is the perfect chance to cover ground that can dispel biases against older workers. If a company is searching for someone willing to work long hours, for example, the applicant can be asked what their ideal work schedule is, and what they are looking for in a work life balance. Some older workers might have recently sent their children to college, for example, and prefer longer hours.

Similarly, during the interview, the company can ask the applicant for examples of where they innovated, or learned a new skill. By hearing these accomplishments, stereotypes about older workers not continuing to come up with new ideas can often be debunked.

Retention

Finally, companies should make efforts to retain older workers by keeping an open-minded culture, and inclusive workplace. Different generations often have different cultural touch points, but in the right workplace culture, these differences do not result in older generations feeling excluded or dismissed.

In addition, companies should not assume older workers need to continue to receive promotions and salary increases at a different rate than their younger peers. By asking older workers what their goals and needs are, companies can avoid unduly assuming they cannot meet older workers’ demands, and letting them go prematurely for financial reasons.

In today’s tight job market, it is more important than ever for tech companies to look past ageism and see the actual person applying for a job. Companies that proactively counteract the industry’s bias against older people will be more successful, and have a competitive advantage against other tech companies that continue to overlook older tech workers.