In organizations that are prospering, there appears to be no difference in the distribution of bonuses, training or new jobs to older or younger workers.
But research presented in April at the annual conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology found a difference in the allocation of resources when an organization has limited resources.
In other words, when the company has financial troubles, older workers are more likely to feel the pinch.
Aaron Wallen and Cameron McClure, researchers at Columbia University, shared results from three experiments that measured applicant suitability for a single job opening, employee suitability for a workplace training course, and the size of a bonus given an employee. In each study, they varied the hypothetical person’s age to gauge reactions.
When an organization with “abundant resources,” as described, had multiple jobs to offer or a healthy bonus pool, experiment participants didn’t give an edge to either younger or older candidates.
But when the experiment described the organization’s resources as tight, older employees were regularly deemed to be less suitable for the job, the training or the bonus.
Wallen said participants in the experiments may have stereotyped people according to age. Or they may “want to find people who they think will give the most back to the company, and some people think younger workers have more to give than older workers,” he reported.
The conclusions won’t surprise many older job hunters and employees. The past recession and downsizings caused many laid-off older workers to attribute their difficulty in gaining re-employment to age discrimination.
Similarly, employed workers in the 40-and-over set often believe they’re passed over for promotions or raises on the basis of age rather than ability or production.
The Columbia experiments appear to validate those feelings — with the important nuance related to the organization’s financial health.
All job hunters should research thoroughly before pinning hopes on a target organization that might be less inclined to choose them. Similarly, workers who feel put out to pasture before their time might investigate options at organizations that aren’t as focused on cost cutting or other budget restraints.
Note, too, that age discrimination is an exceedingly difficult fact to prove at the corporate level. Organizations can provide reasons other than age for a person getting — or not getting — a job or a benefit. And any individual is unlikely to ascertain the true, full reason for rejection or getting short-changed.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys in some instances have been able to win age discrimination lawsuits by establishing that a “pattern and practice” of age discrimination exists in an organization. But this typically involves a lot of data research, time and money.
An older worker who feels discriminated against is likely to have better luck requesting a serious sit-down, private conversation with the boss or bosses and asking hard questions. Well-schooled managers will never say, “Well, we have a policy of easing older workers out the door.”
Older workers who are aggrieved should make it clear that they want to continue to learn and advance in their careers. They should request training if it isn’t offered. They should ask what they can do better to meet expectations.
Hard work and clear communication are necessary, or the organization might well assume that the older worker is aiming for retirement instead of more productive years.