Back in 1992 an academic article* was published examining differences in the rates of career progression between male and female managers. It took the approach of examining the importance for female managers of “doing all the right stuff” in terms of the behaviours that their male counterparts demonstrated that got them promoted (e.g. getting a similar education as the men, maintaining similar family responsibilities, working in similar industries, not moving in and out of the work force, not removing their names from consideration for transfers).

While, unfortunately, the article demonstrated that doing all these things was still not enough to overcome the significant disparities in men’s and women’s salary progression and geographic mobility it was a fascinating approach and one which might usefully be applied to improving the position of older workers in today’s employment arenas.

It appears from numerous reports that discrimination against older workers, despite legislation, is still ingrained and invidious across many workplaces even though it is no longer acceptable for older workers to be turned down or disregarded for opportunities due to vague notions of inadequacies relating to their age. This being the case, identifying what “the right stuff” is for employees within a particular organization could at least open a dialogue and potentially make the achievement of those qualities more accessible to older workers.

Taking this perspective would help clarify exactly what the key behaviours for success are considered to be within that organization. For example, if employees are expected to be “dynamic” and “innovative”, what types of behaviours demonstrate this? What might younger people be doing in behavioural or attitudinal terms that their older colleagues are not?  Having decided this, those of any age who required development to better achieve and exhibit those behaviours could then be given support to improve their position and performance and their chances of future employment success.

One of the criticisms which is often leveled at older workers is that they are resistant to training and development activities. Research has shown that where this occurs this may be because they perceive the training on offer as irrelevant to their needs. Perhaps this approach might engage older individuals more and help to bring them into organization-wide talent development programmes that at present, seem to largely exclude the over 50s.

In the worst case scenario such an exercise would at least demonstrate – as in the article mentioned above – that even doing all the right stuff will still not be enough to ensure older workers receive the same opportunities as younger people.

Hopefully, though, any organization that had been through such a process would have improved recognition of the need for fairness for all.

* All the right stuff: A comparison of female and male manager’s career progression. Linda Stroh, Jeanne Brett and Anne Reilly, Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol 77(3), Jun 1992, 251-260

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