Kate Clayton-Hathway - October 2017

  • To hire or not to hire older people: intergenerational relations, quality of contact and hiring decisions

    Despite an increasingly older workforce, and even though it is illegal, age discrimination at work is still a common phenomenon in the UK and many other countries around the world. Hiring practices in particular are identified as a major source of unfair treatment on the grounds of age and though many older workers wish to work longer, possibilities may be denied to them due to employers’ negative attitudes.

    Research on intergenerational relations has revealed that intergroup contact, i.e. actual interactions between members of clearly distinguishable groups, may be useful in reducing prejudices toward older people in general , though surprisingly, research on workplace intergenerational contact is scarce.

    A study undertaken by Dr Ulrike Fasbender, Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Diversity Policy Research and Practice investigated the ways decision-makers ‘categorize’ older people and how such underlying mechanisms impact their willingness to hire older workers.

    The study assessed ‘affective’ categorization, ie, anxiety around older people and ‘cognitive categorization’ which links to how competent, friendly and trustworthy older people are perceived to be, through a structured online questionnaire. In particular, the quality of intergroup contact as a means to influence age-related hiring decisions was investigated, taking the perspective of organizational decision-makers. The sample consisted of 238 participants, with participants’ ages ranging from 21 to 49 years, representing industries which included consumer goods and financial institutions.

    Results from the study indicated that:

    • Experiencing high-quality contact with older workers means managers are more likely to perceive them as competent and warm and experience lower levels of anxiety towards them; these relationships were stronger when managers were aware of age differences during the contact with older workers.
    • Higher levels of warmth towards older workers are likely to increase willingness to hire older people, whereas higher levels of anxiety towards older people are likely to decrease willingness to hire them.
    • The quality of intergroup contact was positively related to willingness to hire older people.

    Implications for organisations

    High-quality contact is therefore key in encouraging fairer, age-diverse recruitment practices, and organisations may create opportunities for people of different ages to share high-quality interaction through various initiatives and practices, including:

    Age diverse teams allowing colleagues to negotiate shared experiences and interests. Encouraging team members to feel that they have shared, rather than competing outcomes creates interdependence between them and can shift how individuals categorize one another, helping to eradicate negative stereotypes . Younger employees might be allowed to ‘test drive’ other positions, or older employees encouraged to share their experience with younger employees in a structured way, perhaps through organised learning sessions.

    Where the work environment does not support intergenerational teams, an alternative approach may be to develop volunteer programs, or other opportunities which allow different generations to work together toward a goal outside of their usual work-related responsibilities.

    Focused education and training can help to socialise employees and raise awareness of the strengths of the different working styles and differing motivations, e.g., through a series of workshops to share and develop leadership skills . Induction and orientation programmes can offer an opportunity for intergenerational contact where new recruits learn about the organisation by other employees’ presentations, developing understanding and appreciation of a range of colleagues’ roles.

    Cross-generational mentor/mentee relationships allow older workers to mentor younger ones and encourage a flow of expertise and knowledge between the generations . Reverse mentoring, is an alternative form of mentoring which involves pairing younger, junior employees with older, senior colleagues to share expertise. It allows knowledge-sharing which can focus on the younger colleague’s more current expertise and technical knowledge, drive innovation and build the leadership pipeline . Mentoring might take different forms, including one-to-one sessions or group programmes , giving respective groups the advantage of knowledge and experience through another ‘generational lens’.

    As older workers form an increasingly high proportion of the workforce, age-diverse organisations are likely to face growing challenges around attracting, motivating and retaining employees where expectations and motivations across cohorts may be quite different. Sensitivity to varying needs, whilst avoiding stereotypes, is paramount, as is the recognition that there are much greater differences, e.g. in performance within age groups than there are between them.


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