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Age Isn’t Just a Number


by Kendra Clark, for SIOP

Study Shows When Organizational Resources Are Lacking, Older Workers Get Penalized

Older workers may be staying in the workforce longer, but they aren’t always getting a warm welcome.

Recent research conducted by SIOP members Aaron Wallen and Cameron McClure, both from Columbia University,examined how younger workers are favored over older workers when resources are scarce.

Wallen and McClure found that when there are limited job openings or open training slots, older workers are perceived as less suitable for the openings than younger workers, even when they have the same qualifications. Similarly, when money for bonuses is limited, older workers are given less than younger workers with equal qualifications. However, when the resources are abundant, no differences were found in the distribution of resources to older and younger employees.

“When people look to hire someone, they tend to try to find the right match for the job,” Wallen explained. “When they do this, they might stereotype people when evaluating for the right fit. Also, they want to find people who they think will give the most back to the company, and some people think younger workers have more to give than older workers.”

This research will be presented during a poster session at the 30th Annual SIOP Conference, which takes place April 23-25, 2015 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

For this research, Wallen and McClure conducted three experimental studies measuring participants’ reactions to a person who would potentially receive an organizational resource. The first study measured the perceived suitability of an applicant for a new job, the second measured the perceived suitability of an employee for a training course, and the third measured the amount of money given as a bonus to an employee. In each study, the applicant’s age and scarcity of resources were manipulated. In the first two studies, they found that older workers were perceived as less suitable than younger workers for a new job or for a job training course when only one position was open but not when there were several open positions. They found the same pattern to hold true for the allocation of a bonus. Consistently, the studies showed older employees were judged less suitable for resources—or were actually granted fewer resources—when organizational resources were scarce.

Wallen said older workers tend to be penalized when job openings are scarce versus when the openings are abundant because of the decision-making process the managers have to face.

“When there are a lot of resources, they are not forced to make as many difficult decisions and don’t need to look too deeply into what they want,” he said. “But when there are fewer resources, they have to think more critically and ask ‘What can they do for me in the future?’”

He pointed out the results of the studies show a bias in thinking about older workers.

“We speculate that people think the younger workers have more to give and will stay longer than the older workers,” he said. “However, this is probably not the case. Younger workers may even leave the company to seek better employment sooner than when older workers will want to retire.”

Because old age is something all workers will eventually face, Wallen said this research is particularly relevent.

“There is discrimination happening against older workers who have a lot of talent to offer, and that is not right,” he explained. “People are openly discriminating against older workers… It’s unfair to the workers, and also counterproductive to organizations in that it means lost opportunities to hire, retain, and reward talented older workers, so we need to make people aware of the problem.”