Age Discrimination in the Workplace: 2 Mistakes You Must Avoid

Scott Esposito

Age discrimination is wrong-- and to ensure that the appropriate deterrent was put in place, Congress enacted the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) in 1967 (most recently amended in 1991). This legislation was a strong complement to the earlier Title VII of Civil Rights Act of 1964, which more broadly protected workers from other forms of discrimination including race, sex, color and religion. Like Title VII, the ADEA is enforced through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Age discrimination is unique among other forms of discrimination. Regardless of any worker’s gender, race, religion, color or national origin, with the passage of time and more miles added to the odometer, we all have the potential of falling victim to this form of discrimination.

Currently with the surge of baby boomers moving toward later career stages and retirement, we are witnessing the full impact of this shift in our labor force demographic profile and its implications: diminishing social security funds; greater demands on our health care system; and skill shortages that weaken our economic capacity. Age is here to stay and we need to act decisively in order to stay on the right side of the law and fully harness available human capital.

The First Mistake

No corporation, large or small, wants to make the mistake of allowing age discrimination to occur in its most overt form: that is, bias in employment related decisions through willful or negligent practices. Over the years, legislation has guided the development of policies and procedures, building in the necessary safeguards and audits to ensure employers have provided equal opportunity to all classes of employees. Further, companies have incorporated non-discrimination topics into training programs and established protected communication channels to ensure that suspected incidents may be freely reported and investigated.
To the vigilant and disciplined organization, there is little risk that overt forms of discrimination will occur undetected. And in those cases where it does occur, immediate and appropriate action underscores a commitment to getting it right going forward.

The Second Mistake

There is a second mistake to be made, equally as damaging, that some companies overlook. Unintended biases may be built into the systems that govern human capital practices-- often becoming part of standard work and passing unnoticed, but carrying with it significant economic and organizational consequences.

So, let’s assume that we have "bullet-proofed" our policies and procedures against the ugly specter of discrimination; our HR organization has been properly educated and our managers thoroughly trained. All is well.

There are few, if any, leaders who would paint an imaginary barrier around the 40+ crowd and consciously treat older workers differently. However, it’s amazing how stereo-typing and assumptions seep into belief systems and influence our actions and decisions. Management practices evolve over time, independent of cultural values and norms, which may promote subtle and unrecognized biases toward those at the later career stage.

Listed below are some of the areas where unintended forms of age discrimination play out:

High-potential List

For the most part, the primary focus for high potentials is the early to mid career range, or those with "plenty of career runway". While early career is the right place to start, overlooking or discounting those with 25+ years of experience is a strategic mistake. Leadership development has the longest lead time of any organization process and the investment made in human capital over a career is significant. Companies can maximize their ROI by cultivating a balanced approach to selecting and developing high potential talent at all career stages. It is also interesting to note that employees at later career stages often have the flexibility and financial fortitude to consider major geographic changes.

Career Development

Every employee in the company should have a viable career plan. The discipline around this activity becomes more complacent and less focused when managing later-career employees. The tendency of putting a career on auto pilot in later years is a short-coming that is shared equally by managers and employees. There are plenty of opportunities to move and develop talent at every career stage. How quickly we move to hire rather than reconfigure and repurpose our existing human capital.

Performance Management

It’s easy and safe to pick the center of the curve to place our more senior workers. Over time, we assume our experienced workers are doing a full and complete job in the absence of any dramatic changes. However, this becomes a losing proposition in the long-run. Constructive feedback and coaching to improve performance is a fundamental management discipline and one that impacts the company’s bottom line. Employees at a later career stage deserve the same scrutiny, attention and feedback to fairly move them to the left or the right of the center.


One of the advantages of a robust college recruiting program is to incorporate the latest technology and newest ideas into the workplace. We tend to associate innovation and better ideas with those at an early career stage – they know the latest and greatest stuff. However, we should not undercut the contribution of more experienced workers who bring a unique perspectives to the creative process.

Those of us from the aerospace industry are familiar with what is called the "graybeard" review; the collective wisdom of highly experienced experts who know what was done in the past, how it worked, what can go wrong and how to avoid the same mistakes through lessons learned.

The Missed Opportunity

The cumulative effect of these unintended biases is underutilized capacity. To put this in perspective, consider the goals of lean manufacturing: improving machine uptime, throughput and minimizing waste. We want to avoid paying for idle or underutilized assets; machine, plant, human or otherwise. To maximize the return on human capital, we should aim to match capabilities with opportunities -- internally shifting resources to meet changing needs, redesigning work and retraining existing workers.

Later career employees, particularly those electing to downshift, should not be overlooked as a rich source of available talent for a variety of high impact roles such as:

  • Mentors / Advisors
  • SMEs (subject matter experts)
  • M&A / due diligence team members
  • Interim executives
  • Team sponsors
  • Employee advocates
  • Vendor / supplier liaisons
  • Trainers / Educators
  • Integration managers
  • Corporate plumbers – process improvements

Final Thoughts

Gathering the right talent, tapping the power of diversity and gaining the full participation of the workforce in driving business strategy should be the ultimate goal of every manager.

Can you harness the potential of an aging workforce, breaking down self imposed barriers, creating new approaches to work and, in the process, redesign and redirect careers? This will turn age into experience and experience into better business performance.