Age Discrimination in Recruitment

Last week I had the pleasure of discussing recruitment, age discrimination and Artificial Intelligence with Roberto Perrone at BBC Three Counties Radio. You can listen to the interview here, but below are my thoughts.

The interview was triggered by the experiences of Karen Beecham, a 58 year old buyer who was made redundancy from M&S last year. As a result of her recruitment efforts to date, she has now removed her age from her CV to get more interviews and improve her chances of getting a new job. In addition Roberto heard from a 30 year army veteran who is struggling to get a job despite extensive life experience and he too puts this down to his age.

Karen’s story is not an unfamiliar one. There are a lot of people who unfortunately have been made redundant over the last 18 months. Having a redundancy on your CV used to be a huge stigma. Now, because of circumstances, it’s not viewed as the black mark it used to be, but it is very much an employer’s market at the moment. There are a lot of people who are unemployed and therefore employers are being very picky about who they’re choosing to bring onboard within their businesses.

It is their right to choose who they think will fit in best in their environment.

It’s not always just about the skillset or the experience, but sometimes it’s about the cultural fit as well. And I don’t like to say this about Marks and Spencer (M&S), and I am an M&S fan, but M&S has a very specific culture, reputation and a particular way of working. That can mean, or can be perceived to mean, that the staff are less flexible going into a new environment. As a result, those people aren’t seen as coming from the right culture or having the right transferable skills for the next employer.

However, the right employer may look at Karen and conclude she has a lot of experience and comes from a well-known brand, she was responsible for a big budget and would have known what she was doing, otherwise she wouldn’t have been at M&S for so long. For the right employer, she would bring something to the business, new ideas and new ways of doing things, making her an asset to the business going forward.

So Karen’s challenge, as she has discovered, is to find the right employer for her, someone who appreciates the skills and experience that she’s got, and that’s not easy to identify from the outside.

Sometimes employers feel intimidated or challenged by somebody with a lot of experience or with a skillset which they themselves don’t have. While some people work with the concept of only hiring people who are better than themselves, others are very uncomfortable with hiring someone with significantly more experience than themselves. A really good example of this is the Army Veteran with 30 years of service.

There’s a stereotype that these people are going to be very regimented, very restricted in their ability to integrate. They are perceived as being used to working in a certain way, and potential employers may feel they are not going to be as flexible as required. Some employers may also feel threatened by them.

Does removing age from the CV work?

Although I appreciate that for some people removing age and old jobs may help, I do believe that a large part of the issue to do with how people market themselves. Getting a job is like any other sales and marketing activity, but in this instance, you are the product. As a job hunter, you need to be able to draw out the transferable skills and demonstrate to a potential employer why you are the best person to their role and business. People who’ve never done any marketing at all in their lives are suddenly having to position themselves so that they stand out.

What does that mean?

Employers may require a number of different application methods including CV’s, cover letters, application forms, online skills tests, personality tests and now video show reels as well. These really are horrible, but are just another way of marketing yourself to a future employer. Students applying for summer jobs, zero hour contracts or internships are having to go through multiple interviews and submit videos. In many cases, there is no follow up from the business. There is no acknowledgement of receipt or rejection of applicants.

In some cases the videos are recorded on a phone and then uploaded, these are slightly better as you can record your message several times until you are happy with it. However, in some cases, you are sat in front of a ‘live’ screen where questions pop up on the screen, you have 10 seconds to think about your answer and then it starts recording you. After the allowed time, it stops and you have no ability to change what you have said.

Technology is also probably making job applications a lot harder for people because AI is being used in a way that it’s never been used before. Therefore the human contact, the human decision-making, the bit where an experienced recruiter would say, actually, ‘there’s something about that person’, has been removed. The recruiter might think ‘they don’t look a hundred percent on paper, but I can just see or feel something in that person’. A lot of that has gone now because a lot of organisations are using some form of AI in their recruitment process.

What do we mean by AI?

AI is Artificial Intelligence. There’s all sorts of software out there now, which will look at and sift applications. An example of this is key words. If you don’t happen to have the key words in your CV or in your cover letter, your application is overlooked. AI may be looking for certain patterns. So, over a period of time, for example, if you’ve got too many jobs within a certain timeframe, if you’ve got unexplained gaps in your CV, these may be red flags for the AI, but you don’t know what these algorithms are looking for. One of the problems with algorithms is that they are only as good as the people who have actually written them. Therefore, what can happen is that you end up with a workforce that all looks the same because they’ve benchmarked their current people and concluded that these are the skillsets and the profiles of the successful people in our organisation and therefore this is what we need going forward. That’s where the AI isn’t necessarily helping. It may be decreasing the diversity among the new employees in terms of age, demographics and experience because it’s just basing new recruitment on the people who are already in the business and doing well.

Is age a factor?

Age is always a factor, but that’s applies to our 21 year olds as well as to the 58 year olds, as well as to the 60 and 70 year olds. One of the big concerns with older workers, and I don’t know where that line is drawn for the definition of older workers, but one of the challenges is that the government took away the retirement age number of years ago now, so that an employer, if they’re taking on a 58 year old could have them for 10, 15 or 20 years, but it’s really difficult to then get rid of that person as they become more frail, less able to cope and less able to do the job.

That’s something which I know a lot of employers are really scared about because actually having a conversation with somebody and saying, “you are now too old to do this job, you are now making mistakes, you need to retire”, is age discrimination. It’s not the problem being 58, but it’s what happens to them when they’re 68 and employers have got no decent, humane way of terminating their employment. Unfortunately, they end up having to fire these older employees for poor performance when actually they’ve given 10 years of really good service. So I do think that is part of the problem and what makes employers nervous about taking on an older employee, because actually a lot of employers aren’t good at having difficult conversations and there is no legal mechanism to enable employers to retire older workers who can no longer do the job for which they were hired.

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