HR Management & Compliance

A 12-Step Action Plan to Combat Workplace Ageism

Workplace ageism is a pervasive problem, but there are steps employees and forward-thinking companies can take to combat it.


Source: astel design / Shutterstock

The first step is to hold up a mirror so employers can see their unconscious bias against older workers. Does your company systematically push older workers out the door? Do you give all the new jobs to younger people? Do you cut older employees out of the bonus pool because you assume they’ll be leaving soon anyway?

This is the mirror test, and it requires honesty. If we can show employers how they discriminate, and they can see it and acknowledge that it’s happening and that it’s hurting their business, as someone who prefers my glass half full, I truly do believe they will change.

If you want to find out if you or your company is ageist, here are 12 questions to ask and steps you can take:

1. Have you personally asked your workers over 50 what they experience at your company? What are they feeling?

Sarah is a senior Human Resources person for a large company, and among her many responsibilities is helping people through the company’s retirement process. She handles several each quarter.

She told me that, time and again, an older worker will come to her, announce his or her plan to retire, and then say things like, “I still feel really good. I still travel. I know I can still add value to the company, but for some reason, I’m just not feeling like I should stay here anymore. The business world seems to think it’s time for me to stop. So, I guess I will.”

In other words, it’s clear to Sarah that they’re not really ready to retire.

As an employer, you likely already survey your employees to measure employee satisfaction, so why not add a few questions to measure the feelings and experiences of your workers over 50 to see if there are any concerning trends.  And of course, nothing beats the high-touch approach—if you suspect you have an issue with ageism in your company, seek out older workers and ask them how they are feeling.

2. Are your training and development opportunities designed and developed with all your employees in mind?

If you’re a manager and considering who to send to upcoming training on some significant new technology—such as artificial intelligence—do you automatically think you should send the 30-year-old instead of the 50-year-old?

You might reason that 30-year-old Susie would make a better candidate. Susie might be with the company for longer than 50-year-old Sam, and you will get a better return on your investment by sending Susie.

A truly “agenostic” approach would be to disregard an employee’s age and decide instead on what’s best for individuals and for the company based on skill, experience, and talent.

3. Does your employee handbook address age discrimination?

When I asked HR professionals about this, a huge number said, “Oh my God. I don’t think it does.”

Most employee handbooks might talk generally about discrimination, but very few specifically address age—even though they specifically address other forms of discrimination.

The fix is simple: Add clear, specific language, such as, “We respect workers of all ages,” and list some examples of how you do so. This will send a message to your employees that this is something your organization cares about.

4. Does your team always plan outings or parties suitable for Millennials, or does it plan things that are appropriate for 40-somethings, too?

In my years managing younger workers, one thing I’ve learned is that Millennials love to wear costumes, and in my most recent workplace, every holiday party we had for a while had a theme. You had to dress up like a lumberjack, wear an ugly sweater, or something like that. The Millennials on my team loved these parties, but a few parties in, the rest of us weren’t quite as enthusiastic.

This seems like a trivial point, but the larger concept is one of inclusion: If every party is planned by Millennials and designed according to their likes, the non-Millennials in the group can’t help but feel old and out of place.

5. Is your older worker suddenly less enthusiastic or putting forth less effort? Find out why, and make sure the person isn’t feeling undervalued or left out.

I’ve had a lot of older workers tell me that they begin feeling invisible in meetings and group settings. Younger employees don’t seem as interested in the older workers’ opinions, or they don’t seek those opinions at all.

Consequently, many of these older workers withdraw, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby older employees don’t contribute as much as they used to and don’t have as much to say.

A smart leader must be tuned into that and take steps to correct it.

6. Are your flexibility programs really for EVERYONE? Or do you or your managers have an unconscious bias?

Many companies boast that they’re “family friendly.” If you need to leave early to go to your kid’s soccer game, no worries!

But is your 30- or 40-something manager as accommodating when an older employee needs to leave early because his or her aging mother needs him or her to drop off her medication?

The truth is that older workers often feel like they have less flexibility when they need to take time off for the things they need to do. If your company wants to be family-friendly, then it needs to be equally tolerant of and welcoming to all its employees.

7. Does your business send the message that it’s all about 20-somethings?

Look at your website. What images do you choose to represent your company? Are they all young people? Are you guilty of the same misstep the fashion and beauty industry made when it ignored the “real women” of the world?

This is a subtle form of cultural bias: that young is beautiful and that youth equals optimism and great promise. And it is! It should! But what kind of message does it send to your older workers if they are not physically represented in how you present your company to external audiences?

Companies and organizations have made a conscious effort to show diversity when it comes to gender and race, but we’re not seeing anywhere near the same conscious effort to show diversity when it comes to age cohorts.

8. Do you address age issues as part of your company’s diversity and inclusiveness efforts?

If you do address ageism in your training, congratulations. You are in a very select group.

I talked to a great number of HR executives for some very big companies about this issue. I asked them how often their diversity and inclusion training addresses ageism and combating ageism, and most admitted that it almost never does. However, they agreed that ageism should be part of any broad diversity and inclusion strategy.

9. Are you making assumptions and practicing unconscious bias?

If you want to determine if your organization is ageist, take age and substitute it with a specific race or gender. You wouldn’t leave African Americans off the list of candidates because you believe blacks don’t like to travel or Hispanics because you think they wouldn’t be willing to sell their family home and move to Switzerland, would you? No, of course not—that would be, to put it bluntly, racist.

Then why would you do that to a worker just because he or she is over 50?

People who are over 50 are just as unique and different from each other as people within a certain race are different from each other. You can’t make assumptions about them as a group. You must make decisions about them as individuals. Above all, those decisions will be infinitely better if informed by actual conversations with employees.

10. Have your HR practices kept up with the times?

Many companies use what’s called a velocity chart to map out the expected trajectory of a young employee’s career. The idea is that you identify your high-potential workers and spend more time grooming them to be great rather than spending time with people who might always be mediocre.

You identify these high-potential employees in the first 5 to 7 years of their career, and you use the chart to plan career moves for those people. Here’s the problem with that—the chart was designed in the 1960s based on the premise that people reach their professional peak in their early 50s.

A lot of companies use this, and it’s very well accepted in HR circles. It makes good business sense. There’s a huge problem with it, though: The chart hasn’t been updated in over 50 years.

If you’re a CEO or a member of senior management, you should be pushing your HR department to look into the future and recommend updates to these age-old ways of doing things when needed.

11. Are you giving your older workers a chance to be involved in succession planning?

Most of the HR executives I’ve talked to agreed that most companies don’t do succession planning very well. Succession planning is tricky, but if you’re an executive and you want to plan for how to replace an older worker, the conversation with that older worker needs to be based on trust and mutual respect.

12. Are you allowing some stereotypes of older workers to fester in your organization?

“Older workers can’t master new skills.” “They don’t understand technology.” “They aren’t creative.” “They’re burned out, tired, or unhappy.”

As a people leader for nearly my entire career, for every one of those stereotypes, I can name a 20- or 30-something who demonstrated that same weakness to me in his or her job performance. How about we just let go of all stereotypes and give honest and direct feedback to all based on equal criteria?

If you ask your organization these questions, you will be on the right path toward eliminating age discrimination and making it a more accepting workplace for all employees.

The following is adapted from I’m Not Done: It’s Time to Talk About Ageism in the Workplace. For more advice on handling age discrimination, you can find I’m Not Done on Amazon.

Over the course of an impressive 4-decade career, Patti Temple Rocks has held senior leadership positions in three different sectors of the communications industry: in PR, in advertising, and on the corporate client side. She is an inspirational leader, an innovative thinker, a problem-solver, a growth driver, a brand steward, and an agent of change.

Patti is passionate about fighting age discrimination and helping people understand how it harms individuals, businesses, and society as a whole. To learn more about this issue and get in touch with Patti, visit her website:

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