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Managers Too Quick to Scrap Older Workers

An experienced 62-year-old industrial relations representative at an aerospace company found herself out of a job last year. A new department head had come in, and within an hour he had asked all of her associates about her performance. Later, he began criticizing her for taking normal coffee breaks, claiming she was slowing down. She got the message, quit and was promptly replaced by two younger, more attractive women.

She’s convinced she was forced out by not-so-subtle age discrimination.

As uncivilized as that department head’s behavior sounds, it is repeated frequently by employers in this country, not always so blatantly but with similarly tragic human results. Older workers get a reputation for being over the hill, whether they deserve it or not. As a result, companies automatically stop considering such people for promotion, making the over-the-hill label a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What these organizations seldom realize is that much of their problem with older workers is a product of management’s own shortcomings. While corporate leadership often looks avidly for ways to shove some of these “under-performers” out the door, it seldom takes a really hard look at this substantial pool of talent and attempts to make something of it.

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“We’re talking about a major problem,” says Helen Dennis, who directs a project on business and aging at USC’s Andrus Gerontology Center.

It is a problem that exists from the lowest level of the work force to the highest.

“I’ve always said I want to start a company with executives who’ve been put on the shelf,” says one human resources official at a major Los Angeles company. “They are so anxious for a challenge and for a chance to contribute.”

Typically, the problem begins when middle-aged workers are passed over for promotion. They may have barely lost the race, yet it’s as if the company suddenly has lost interest in them.

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A personnel officer at a major insurance company describes a case involving a senior manager unwilling to learn new things. “He still prefers 3-by-5 cards for record keeping. He’s just waiting to retire.” Why is he that way? The company stopped trying to motivate him years ago, stopped sending him to seminars to keep him up to date with new methods in favor of sending younger managers. “Now it’s too late.”

To sensitize managers to such problems, Dennis conducts seminars using case studies. Participants are asked to compare job candidates in situations where age and experience are contrasted with youth, energy and ambition. Often, the older worker gets the nod from the managers in attendance, but most admit that in a similar situation at their own company, the chances are pretty strong that the younger person would win hands down. The excuse would be the need to push people along and develop new talent.

At most companies, human resources experts are aware of such biases, but they seldom do the promoting. Efforts to educate department managers on such issues are seldom very extensive.

A few enlightened concerns have developed programs for older workers. IBM has a reputation for providing career incentives throughout a lifetime of employment. Some aerospace companies, recognizing that the older pool of engineering and other technical talent will be difficult to replace, make some effort to keep this group fully motivated.

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Still, most corporate efforts in this direction are fragile. One oil company had a senior workers program designed to keep this group contributing at an optimum level only to discontinue the program in favor of early retirement counseling when the company had to cut back.

The problem is becoming increasingly compelling. With national and state laws forbidding mandatory retirement at 65 and the percentage of the population over 65 three times what it was in 1900, employers face a choice. They can continue to regard this older group as a problem, in which case it certainly will be a huge drag on operating efficiency. Or they can recognize that with some effort, older workers as well as younger ones can be kept on career paths that produce strong performance.


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