Whether you are a seasoned workplace veteran in your 60s or a young professional in your early 20s, ageism has probably affected you at some point in your career.
But what is ageism, and why don’t we hear about it as much as we hear about sexism and racism? The recently released World Health Organisation (WHO) Global Report on Ageism explains that ageism “arises when age is used to categorise and divide people in ways that lead to harm, disadvantage and injustice.” It explains that ageism “refers to the stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) directed towards people on the basis of their age. It can be institutional, interpersonal or self-directed.”
Shockingly, the WHO report found that one in two people held ageist views. Ageism is perhaps best understood to be directed at people who are 50+ years old and young people. In Australia, a current, former or prospective employee who experiences a negative outcome as a result of age-based decisions, actions or words may be the victim of workplace discrimination, bullying or harassment.
What is ageism in the workplace?
In a workplace setting, the effects of ageism can be detrimental to a business’ productivity and subsequently also affect its profitability. Some of the most common examples of ageism in the workplace occur when being ‘too old’ or ‘too young’ is a factor in the following:
There are a number of pieces of federal, state and territory legislation that include provisions that make such behaviours unlawful, including provisions of the Fair Work Act 2009. Workplace discrimination, bullying and harassment can lead to serious implications for perpetrators and also for workplaces that don’t manage these issues effectively.
Challenges in combating ageism-related workplace bullying issues:
Unlike racism or sexual harassment in the workplace, which are being more frequently highlighted and discussed throughout the media these days, ageism doesn’t get the same attention. It’s often mistaken as not being as serious or worthy as racism or sexism. Employees are less likely to raise examples of the ageism they’re experiencing in the workplace because it seems unimportant to others and this makes combating the issue more difficult.
Ageist behaviour during the recruitment process is particularly difficult to address, because applicants are actively seeking employment and want to promote themselves in the best light. They don’t want to be seen to be complaining from the get-go.
Effective ways to respond:
Dealing with ageism can be uncomfortable at best and frightening at worst. Depending on your comfort levels and skill base, there are several ways in which you can respond to incidents of workplace ageism in including:
For those of you not directly experiencing ageism in your workplace, but have seen it happening to others, find a way to help stop those behaviours. If you feel safe and skilled enough, it might be worthwhile stepping in to stop or help resolve a specific incident. Even if you don’t feel stepping in is something you can do, why not consider what actions you can take in more general settings, to encourage and promote a positive, respectful workplace culture that welcomes diversity in its workforce.