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Reducing Age Discrimination in Social-Impact Hiring

We often survey members of the Idealist community––your future job applicants, promising candidates, and employees—and something we’ve heard over the years is that older seekers tend to experience ageism in their job searches. It’s not a surprise; depictions of older people in our culture insinuate that they are a tech-fearing monolith, disinterested in learning anything new. Who’d want to hire that person?

At the same time, younger job seekers face ageism of a different sort, as it’s often assumed that they are internet-embedded, spoiled, and willing to jump ship when they don’t get a promotion.

But of course we all know better. Just consider music superstar Dionne Warwick, born in 1940 and currently the Queen of Twitter. Ms. Warwick, and folks her age and younger, have years of knowledge and deep connections and can be a true asset on any team. Likewise, younger professionals can bring different qualities to the table––other ideas and cultural perspectives, for one.

The point of urging others and ourselves to pay closer attention is diversity and inclusion. When we seek to include candidates that might not be “ideal” but instead bring varied experiences and skills, we are, as they say, doing the work. Read on for suggestions on how to do exactly this.

Years of experience in the hiring process

Organizations tend to specify how many years of experience they’d like a candidate to have; you may be looking for a new hire who can hit the ground running, who doesn’t need to be trained, for example, on how to ask a major donor to increase their annual gift.

As much as possible, we suggest listing minimum requirements for years of experience, but not maximums. If you say you’re looking for a candidate with ten to fifteen years of experience, you may eliminate excellent candidates who’ve done that work for twenty-five years. As long as a solid candidate makes a compelling argument for why they want the job, you should consider their candidacy––no matter how much experience they do or don’t have.

I am 60 and out of work long term… [I] cannot find a job at anywhere near a living wage... I have thirty years [plus] of work experience. I did not become radioactive overnight so I attribute this dilemma largely to ageism no matter all the cute jargon and buzzwords people try to use to justify NOT hiring people in my demographic.

Idealist job seeker

Similarly, there are times when a younger candidate gets filtered out of consideration for a leadership opportunity. Maybe they’ve never managed a large team, but they’ve successfully implemented huge organizing and advocacy campaigns with many stakeholders. Looking at graduation year as an indication of qualified or unqualified may mean you’ve removed excellent candidates from your radar.

A fail-safe strategy for vetting any candidate, regardless of age, is conducting a skills test; these can even be done as a part of the application process. While not every type of role easily lends itself to a skills check, it’s worth considering, and ensures equity in the hiring process. 

For example, when we’re hiring for our Community Support Team (the folks that help Idealist administrators use idealist.org), we ask candidates to write a sample email to a pretend admin. This allows us to see if they are a clear communicator––a strict must-have for the role.

Job listing codewords that promote exclusion

We’ve already touched on including required years of experience in a job listing, but here are some ageist phrases to avoid:

  • Without using names, we’ve seen organizations posting on Idealist looking for “digital natives.” This is thinly-veiled ageism, because this moniker cannot apply to everyone, and because older employees may be perceived as being out of touch with current technology.
  • “Recent grads” can come across as exclusionary, especially as it evokes a traditionally-aged student who recently graduated from college.
  • Similarly, looking for a “rockstar” may infer that older applicants are not the target audience. 
  • On the other hand, the term “seasoned professional” can be used to discourage younger applicants.

Bottom line: be careful with the language you use to describe an ideal candidate. Ideally, you’ll avoid this altogether.

Compensation

We urge all organizations to post a salary range in job listings. Do it for the sake of equity, but also, for transparency. A candidate who knows the range won’t be surprised later on when they get the offer.

With the range in mind, don’t automatically assume that a more experienced candidate won’t be interested in the salary you’re offering, or that they’re “too expensive.” If it’s posted ahead of time, you can assume that they understand that compensation might be lower than they are making. It’s possible that your organization is offering other forms of compensation––flexible schedules, comprehensive or competitive healthcare benefits, and the like.

Keep an open mind

Our brains reach for shorthand so that decision-making may be easier––assumptions, norms, the way you’re used to doing something. We all do this in all facets of our lives, including hiring. But for the sake of equity, we need to slow down. Carefully editing job listings and considering candidates outside of a typical profile takes more time and effort, but the possible rewards for your organization to bring on truly diverse staff are incalculable.

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Want to share your own tips for combating ageism or offer other perspectives? Please write to hello@idealist.org with any and all feedback!

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