Ageism in the Candidate Experience: Start with Perceived Fairness

Ageism in the Candidate Experience: Start with Perceived Fairness

By Kevin W. Grossman

I’ve been lucky so far: I’m over 50 and I haven’t experienced ageism in the workplace. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s not real.

A New York Times article on the subject says that “Tens of thousands of workers say that even with the right qualifications for a job, they are repeatedly turned away because they are over 50, or even 40, and considered too old.”

From the same Times article, which credits an analysis by the Urban Institute and ProPublica, “More than half of workers over 50 lose longtime jobs before they are ready to retire. … Of those, nine out of 10 never recover their previous earning power. Some are able to find only piecemeal or gig work.”

And here’s one of many candidate comments we found in our 2018 North American Talent Board benchmark research: “They indicate diversity in their hiring process, but that doesn’t seem to apply to age diversity; age discrimination is still an elephant in the room.”

When I was first recruited to run Talent Board over four years ago, I was very excited about doing so. Talent Board is a global nonprofit benchmark research organization that was founded to help employers understand the impact of candidate experience on their business and their brand, from pre-application to onboarding. I had already been a volunteer for the organization and truly believed in its mission.

I also know that there are many employers, big and small, across industries that we work with every year, that are invested in diversity and inclusion and that are working hard to reduce the ageism disparity that does exist, even in such a tight job market with 3.6% unemployment.

One of the competitive differentiators we see each year in our global benchmark research is the fact that those employers with the highest positive candidate ratings have a much higher level of perceived fairness from their job candidates.

Meaning, simply, these candidates feel like they’re being treated fairly throughout most if not all of the recruiting and hiring process. And considering that most job candidates aren’t hired — the fact that talent acquisition is in the business of “no” — this can be a high bar for many companies.

We wanted to see what differences there are when it comes to perceived fairness and satisfaction at the point of screening and interviewing candidates, the recruiting stage where candidates are getting the most engagement before a smaller percentage get the job offers. (This was nearly 30,000 candidates in 2018 from North America.)

Sure enough, the differences are there. We don’t ask candidates for their age, but we do ask them to identify with a generation, and we know that Generation X to baby boomers will be mostly 40s, 50s and older. We also recognized that the differences we found in perceived fairness may not necessarily mean discrimination, and we want to be very clear about that.

For example, one of the questions we ask candidates is for them to indicate the extent to which they felt that the job interview process was fair (see Figure 1). We asked job candidates to rate their perception of fairness during the screening and interviewing process using a 1-5 Likert Scale, with 1 being the lowest score and 5 being the highest.

Figure 1: Perceived Interview Fairness

Figure 1: Perceived Interview Fairness

It’s clear that boomers, in their late 50s and older, feel the interview process is less fair 10% of the time overall, and 12% of the time for boomer males and females compared with Generation Z candidates.

Another question we ask candidates is for them to indicate the extent to which they felt that they were treated fairly by their job interviewer/s (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Perceived Interviewer Fairness

Figure 2: Perceived Interviewer Fairness

Again, boomer candidates feel that their interviewer fairness is lower 12% of the time overall, and 12% and 7% of the time for boomer males and females respectively compared with Gen Z candidates.

We also asked the job candidates how satisfied they were with the ability to present their skills, knowledge and experience during the screening and/or interviewing process (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: Presenting Skills Satisfaction

Figure 3: Presenting Skills Satisfaction


We again see boomer candidates feeling less satisfied than the other generations regarding their ability to present their skills during the screening and/or interviewing process — 21% lower for boomer males versus Gen Z males. (It’s not generational, but it’s also notable that Gen Z females have 15% lower satisfaction than Gen Z males have in this area.)

Besides all the inane reasons my HR friend Jo Weech has noted that employers gave her during her job search, what we know at Talent Board is that the lower the candidates’ perceived fairness is during the screening and interviewing process — and any part of the process, actually — the less likely they will be to apply for another job with that employer in the future, to refer others to that employer or to make and/or influence purchases if the employer is a consumer-based company.

And it’s clear from our research that older job candidates have a much lower perceived fairness level compared with younger candidates. It behooves employers to ensure their diversity and inclusion initiatives are addressing age disparity as well as gender, race and ethnicity. Instead of being so focused on culture fit, which can limit diversity and hurt the business and the brand, consider what Yassmin Abdel-Magied, our keynote speaker for the 2019 Candidate Experience Symposium & Awards Gala, recommends instead: “Why not consider culture add? What can others from diverse backgrounds and experience add to your business today?”

Sounds like a place to start improving candidate experience.


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