Employers need more than money to hire older workers

Beyond being told or incentivised to hire older workers, employers need to feel they are making the right decision. Image sourced from Shutterstock.com

With Australia’s official retirement age heading to 70 by 2035, this year’s federal budget brings forward incentives designed to encourage companies to employ older workers.

The Restart Program, which provides $10,000 to employers to hire over 50s will have payments accelerated, and the government will also provide incentives to older unemployed people to retrain in order to get a job.

The measures go part of the way to addressing the challenges faced by older workers, but come amid ongoing age discrimination in Australia.

Empirical evidence suggests negative stereotypes are at the heart of this form of ageism. Such stereotypes are found among employers as well as the community at large.

Ageist attitudes and related stereotypes are a general socio-cultural phenomenon and are not confined to the workplace, meaning employers’ attitudes toward older workers are simply a reflection of a broader worldview. Being in positions where their decisions have direct impact on the lives of older workers, however, means their views attract more attention than those of other people.

It is not the intention of employers, who typically seek the best person for the job, to discriminate against older workers. But stereotypes are activated automatically in response to cues. For example, a person’s age, appearance, or date of graduation from school are all relevant cues that impact perception and judgement. Despite best intentions, employers’ judgement can be automatically biased by ageist stereotypes so they may miss the best person for the job in cases where it happens to be an older worker.

Common interventions to address ageism toward older workers have been in the form of policies, legislation, and fact sheets, with the former aimed at enforcing fair practice and the latter providing information. Policies, however, provoke resistance to change when people are being told to think and/or behave in particular ways and feel their free choice is threatened. Fact sheets, incongruent with employers’ worldviews, are often perceived as incorrect.

Getting past stereotypes

There are however ways to promote positive attitudes toward older adults among employers and increase the likelihood of them being hired.

One intervention tested successfully involved inducing cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is a mentally unsustainable state that is evoked when a person holds two contradictory thoughts and/or beliefs simultaneously.

People are naturally driven to reduce cognitive dissonance, so much so that it often results in them either changing their attitude or further affirming their initial positions.

In our study we made employers aware that discriminating against older workers was potentially counterproductive and against our culturally enshrined value of a “fair-go”. Having been asked to endorse this view and provide their names, employers were advised they would be listed as people who opposed hiring discrimination against older adults and who were committed to non-discriminatory practice. This meant they would ultimately experience cognitive dissonance in response to activation of negative stereotypes in subsequent considerations of older workers.

We also developed fact sheets based on common misconceptions about older workers. Combining the cognitive dissonance aspect with the fact sheet produced the strongest effect.

Employers who participated in this part of the study showed more positive attitudes toward older workers overall, stated that they were more than likely to hire older workers, and considered age to be less important in making hiring decisions.

Attitudes are said to be relatively resistant to change, but by refuting misconceptions and enabling cognitive dissonance to be evoked in employers, we enabled them to maintain a sense of self-integrity as well as professionalism because these were now aligned with fair treatment of older workers.

Ultimately, it was the internal motivation of hiring decision makers that made the difference, as opposed to dictating to employers how they should behave. The next phase is to discuss various ways the intervention could be implemented.