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Overcoming age bias in recruitment


In the current economic climate, both older and younger individuals face even greater difficulties than usual in obtaining or changing jobs. Dianne Bown-Wilson comments on how improvements to the recruitment process might help cut down on age discrimination.

Age discrimination in employee recruitment continues to be rife despite legislation which should by now have resulted in a level playing field for all. Recent statistics reveal the shocking truth that amongst the unemployed, only one in five of those aged over 50 is likely to get a job within two years. An already bad situation has worsened recently with unemployment rising by more than 16% amongst the over 50s, compared to 7% in the 25-49 year age group

An increasing amount of publicity is being given to the problems that employers are likely to create for themselves through an over-reliance on Generation X and Y employees – the most significant of which is the erosion of organisational stability, experience and knowledge and possible customer alienation.

Likewise, age stereotypes such as older individuals’ inflexibility, inability to learn, lack of IT skills and ill health are all increasingly being denounced as both untrue and unfounded. Morally and practically there is no case for workplace exclusion on the basis of age and plenty of reasons why employers should aim for a balance of workers across the age spectrum.

"Ageism continues to be a deeply entrenched and often unacknowledged barrier."

Whilst the issue of older worker retention is complex, it is currently of less pressing concern than the inability of people over 50 to obtain new jobs. Current practices mean that older people are not being recruited proportionately to their numbers in the population and their eligibility for work.

The problem is that although eventually everyone will age and many decision makers themselves are over 50, ageism continues to be a deeply entrenched and often unacknowledged barrier. Discounting and disregarding older people can be almost instinctive and although such attitudes are impossible to justify, logically they nevertheless remain highly pervasive, even amongst older people themselves.

With many common recruitment procedures it is easy to discard someone due to age, either unconsciously or by justifying the decision on some other basis. Indeed many job specifications mean that older candidates will automatically be excluded or eliminated due to criteria such as failure to hold a particular qualification. As recruitment decisions are generally made by more than one person, the attitudes of those who are more enlightened generally fail to win out.

No quick fix

As an employer or HR professional there is much that you could do to try and overcome age bias in recruitment. Although there is no one quick fix answer, some of the most effective approaches are outlined below:

  • Take a broader view of the starting point. Define the age profile of your organisation and its component parts and identify where there might be specific needs for older candidates in order to create age-balanced teams (which research has shown to be the most effective and desirable composition). As part of this a review of retention rates and length of tenure across roles provides a valuable baseline for helping recruit the right individual for the job. Older individuals tend to stay longer with an organisation, have greater commitment and may have less ambition for advancement so can be ideal in roles where these requirements are particularly desirable, or where they could be used to counterbalance the higher mobility of younger team members.


  • Ensure that unless absolutely necessary the possession of specific qualifications is not made mandatory in job specifications. Due to their age and work history older workers may not hold whatever qualification is now held to be relevant to a position. However they may have plenty of valuable relevant experience and may also be willing to study for the qualification if appointed.


  • Re-design application forms. Instead of requesting a chronological list of past employment and qualifications, ask candidates to demonstrate how their abilities and experience match the requirements of the role through answering a number of specific questions e.g: "This role requires you to manage 20 people. Explain how your qualifications and experience relate to this requirement." Similarly, although most standard forms no longer require date of birth, they do ask for dates of qualifications which highlights the age of older candidates. A fairer approach would be to focus on amount of post-qualification experience e.g. high, medium, low.


  • Involve at least one ‘older’ individual in candidate selection and interview processes. If this is not practical or possible then HR professionals should ensure that job specifications are considered against a number of age-related criteria e.g. what skill sets and qualities might an older person bring to this job compared to those of a younger person (they are unlikely to be the same). What value might each contribute? The advice of existing older employees should also be sought in relation to each vacancy. How would they respond and react if being asked to apply for the job as an external candidate – what would they see as the barriers?
    "HR professionals should ensure that job specifications are considered against a number of age-related criteria."
  • Analyse job applications to see what age profile they represent. If it appears that no older individuals are applying you need to question why. Similarly if none of the candidates selected for interview are older, this needs to be examined further. These are areas where HR can provide valuable strategic input to the line management involved in recruitment for a particular role.

None of these procedures are particularly arduous or expensive to implement. And there are plenty more – all of which depend on thoughtful planning and rigorous assessment procedures rather than radical policy change. Such changes do not involve or recommend positive discrimination in favour of older applicants but should help ensure that age becomes a fairness issue in the same way as gender, race and disability.

In fact changes to application forms and interview selection criteria could benefit applicants of all ages, particularly those whose career histories are outside the norm, such as returning parents and those seeking to change careers.


Dianne Bown-Wilson is managing director of in my prime, a specialist consultancy offering strategic guidance and practical input on issues relating to the employment and management of older workers. Email her at [email protected]

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