How to Avoid Inadvertent Age Bias in Your Recruiting and Hiring

Whatever business you’re in, you want employees who are energetic, driven, and passionate. You also want people who will be a great fit and stay with you for a long time to come. Unfortunately, depending on how (and where) you go about looking for these folks, you may be discriminating against older workers – even if that isn’t your intent.

The federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) protects applicants and employees age 40 and over from discrimination in all aspects of their work life: hiring, firing, compensation, assignments, promotions, layoffs, training, benefits, and any other “terms, conditions or privileges of employment.” Many states have similar laws, too.

The bottom line is that recruiting and hiring practices that favor younger workers can get you in trouble.

Examples of Age-Biased Recruiting Practices

Here are a few examples of problematic practices:

  • Recruiting solely, or primarily, on college campuses
  • Job ads looking for characteristics closely linked to a younger demographic, such as a “recent college graduate” or “digital native”
  • Online job ads whose visibility is specifically targeted to people below a certain age
  • Company websites or videos that feature only workers in their 20s and 30s
  • Interviewers who ask older applicants about their graduation dates or retirement plans, or how they would feel about being managed by a millennial
  • Physical requirements that are more rigorous than necessary to do a particular job
  • Ceilings on years of past experience

Embrace – and Seek Out – a Diverse Workforce

Even if you technically aren’t doing anything illegal, recruiting efforts that result in a homogenous workforce – whether on the basis of age, gender, race or any other characteristic – hurt you in the long run. You want a wide variety of perspectives and viewpoints, both to help your employees excel and to help your business thrive.

7 Steps to Legally Compliant Recruiting

Here are 7 keys to effective, age-neutral recruiting and hiring:

  1. Diversify your recruiting channels: Facebook ads and college job fairs may work well for your company, but think of other ways to reach qualified applicants, such as LinkedIn and ads in print media, if appropriate.

  2. Don’t rely too heavily on employee referrals: Current employees are often a great source of new talent for your company. For better or worse, however, referral hires tend to closely resemble the people who already work for you. If you are looking to diversify your workforce, this isn’t always a good thing.

  3. Ask everyone the same questions: Your interviewing process should have some room for flexibility, but it’s a good practice to ask everyone the same questions. This creates a useful basis for comparison and also helps preclude off-the-cuff exchanges that could be problematic – even if well-intentioned (“So you’ve been working in this field for nearly 45 years? That’s amazing! Tell me more about that.”).

  4. Be conscious of biases: Knowing rationally that a 50-year-old may be just as tech-savvy as a 22-year-old is one thing, but following through on this assumption is another matter. Everyone has biases. Unconscious bias training can help your employees recognize and combat them, so they don’t become a problem in your recruiting efforts (and in the employment relationship more generally).

  5. Stick to relevance: In your job ads, your interviewing and your hiring decisions, stay focused on what’s relevant. Namely, is this person likely to be able to do the job, and do it well? Assumptions or discussions about, for example, an older applicant’s health, or speculation about when he or she may be planning to leave the workforce, are not relevant – and, taken to a certain point, may serve as evidence of age bias.

  6. Watch your notes: If your company is ever the target of an age bias lawsuit, you need to assume that everything is discoverable – including interview notes, internal emails, and text and message exchanges. For this reason, avoid statements that could be viewed as discriminatory. Even if they are meant for your eyes only, that may not always be the reality.

Screen with care: Whether your initial screener is a person or a computer, make sure that screener is looking only at what’s relevant. If possible, strip out age indicators like birth dates and graduation years. This can be difficult – a recent study revealed that even indirect age signals (such as old-fashioned-sounding names) can lead to age bias – but unconscious bias training can help.

Greenhouse Inclusion helps you mitigate unconscious bias and hire strong, diverse teams. Learn more.

Jennifer Carsen

Jennifer Carsen is a writer and recovering employment lawyer. She creates memorable content and copy for businesses serving senior-level HR professionals. Connect with Jennifer at her website.

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Diversity & Inclusion