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Preventing Age Bias in a Multigenerational Workforce

For the first time, there are five generations of employees working together in the United States


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For the first time, there are five generations of employees working together in the United States. Comprising members from the silent generation, baby boomers, Generation X, millennials and now Generation Z, America’s labor pool is more age-diverse than ever before.

If harnessed effectively, each generation’s principles, perspectives and strengths can be a valuable asset. However, age diversity can also present unique challenges to those trying to manage a multigenerational workforce. Aside from the inherent institutional harm to companies that arises from age bias, state and federal laws prohibit age-based discrimination and can impose hefty penalties for illegal behavior.

After a brief overview of two key federal and state laws, this article discusses a few best practices that employers can implement to minimize the risk of age discrimination claims and optimize their workforces.

Statutory Prohibitions on Age-Based Discrimination

Enacted in 1967, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) is a federal law that prohibits age-based discrimination and harassment in employment. The ADEA protects employees and job applicants age 40 or older from discrimination in any aspect of employment.  This includes hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoffs, training, benefits and any other term or condition of employment. This federal law applies to companies with 20 or more employees. The ADEA does not protect workers under 40 and does not make it illegal for an employer to favor an older worker over a younger worker, even if both workers are over 40.

The Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act also prohibits discrimination and harassment on the basis of age (and like the ADEA, applies to those 40 or older). However, unlike the ADEA, Colorado’s law covers virtually all employers regardless of the size of their workforce because there is no minimum employee threshold for coverage. Consequently, a Colorado-based employer with, for example, only five employees will be covered by state law and prohibited from engaging in age-based discrimination, even though the employer would not otherwise be liable for discrimination under the ADEA.

Best Practices for Uniting Workers and Avoiding Age Bias

It is true that different generations come into the workplace with different goals and values. For example, baby boomers tend to be autonomous, self-sufficient and focused on the hard work necessary to achieve individual recognition. They also tend to be loyal to their employer and less inclined to change jobs frequently. Millennials, meanwhile, often seek professional success through technology and social media-assisted teamwork and seek employers who will actively empower them. They more highly emphasize work-life balance and care more about their company’s perceived morals and mission. Millennials frequently change jobs in pursuit of those values.

Given that differences exist among the generations, how can managers avoid crossing the line from recognizing legitimate variances to illegal discrimination against older workers?

First, they should be sure to avoid obvious discriminatory biases, such as thinking that older workers are incapable of using technology, assuming that older employees are too tired to work hard, treating older workers as inflexible and allowing ageist comments or jokes to permeate the workplace. In addition, managers should focus on each employee’s strengths and weaknesses, seek out commonalities and promote cross-generational learning.

Most importantly, managers should treat employees based on merit instead of age. Recognizing an individual’s strengths and weaknesses fosters objective evaluations that minimize preconceived notions about age. Certainly, there are tech-savvy, energetic and values-oriented older workers, just as there are younger workers who eschew social and workplace connectedness in favor of independence.

Employers should also look for commonalities that bind their employees and use those shared traits to bridge generational divides. Perhaps a group of employees are all natural leaders, or maybe they all require team-based collaboration. Perhaps everyone is deeply invested in the end result of the project they’re working on and can find motivation through a shared sense of mission. In either case, age is irrelevant. Finding commonalities can increase employees’ trust in, and comfort with, one another and dispel stereotypical narratives about age groups.

Lastly, employers should foster cross-generational mentoring. A younger employee may be able to teach efficiency and effectiveness through technology and teamwork, whereas an older employee may be able to teach pattern recognition, a comprehension of the bigger picture or other insights that come from practice and experience. Through such collaboration, older and younger workers may recognize that generational differences can be sources of unity rather than division.

Summary

With growing age diversity in today’s workplaces, employers must work hard to foster cross-generational acceptance among employees. Luckily, the prevalence of stereotypes and illegal discrimination against older workers can be minimized by managing all employees based on individual strengths, by finding commonalities and by fostering cross-generational learning.

David C. Roth is an attorney with the Denver office of Fisher Phillips LLP. His practice focuses on employment litigation, counseling and defending employers against a variety of claims, including discrimination, retaliation, harassment, wage and workplace safety.

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