Ageism, the latest HR plague

Last month, I had a very interesting conversation with a friend of mine who has now settled in Australia.

He told me how he had a group of 8 friends in India who used to live in the same society as him, of which 7 were unemployed for the last 2 years or so, despite being extremely well qualified, highly experienced and talented at their jobs. They had been applying to various companies but were always being rejected.

The reason?

They were all above 45!

Their CVs were eliminated at the first stage itself because almost all positions nowadays have an age bar that is ridiculously low even for very senior positions!

This is a trend I have myself noticed with disdain, dismay and fury over the last few years. I feel disdain for HR heads who devise such policies, disdain for their lack of intelligence, wisdom and commonsense; dismay at the damage it is causing to organisations, individuals and society at large; and anger at the sheer injustice and discrimination of a policy that throws out meritocracy at the first step of the screening process!!

This friend had just taken up a new job with a leading Australian bank after having worked for several years in one of India’s largest IT companies as a Vice President.

He was telling me how he was rather nervous and uncertain about applying to one of Australia’s largest banks for a senior-level position despite having no banking experience at all. Yet he was called for a meeting within a week and offered a fantastic position. He had been directed to apply through the normal process for all candidates and he was struck by a very strange thing in the selection process – nowhere did they ask for his birth date, age or gender!

They only wanted to know whether he had what it takes to do the job well!

Isn’t that interesting? Isn’t that the only thing that matters, really? After all, isn’t that the only thing an HR professional should consider while assessing candidates?

Instead, what do we get?

Wanted CEO. Age Below 35!

Wanted Senior VP, Age Below 40!

I am certain many of my readers will agree that this is something that has become a fad, a crazy fashion to which almost all organizations have fallen prey; to induct younger and younger people at higher positions to show the world that they are modern, innovative and with-it. Companies recruit young, and often, inexperienced or slightly experienced candidates from management institutes and pay them huge salaries, yet, too often, many of these candidates do not have the requisite experience, expertise or people management skills to do justice to their jobs.

These guys then ‘wing it’ in their respective positions, riding on the hard work and contributions of their lower-downs to claim achievements to their name, and then move on to even higher positions and responsibilities in other companies. They have all the jargon and lingo but none of the hardcore experience or understanding to build profitable, lean, enduring organisations, but they do have the packaging. HR is supposed to look deeper but more often, they don’t, because they do not have the sense nor the skill to assess the candidates due to their preconceived notions and biased rules.

But see the tragedy of those who have just entered this dangerous phase of life, beyond 45. If you lose your job, for whatever reason, in this phase of your life without having another offer in hand, you could be in real trouble. 

At 45, you still have a good 15-20 years of your working life remaining where you can contribute the best and most; you have already made most of your mistakes and learnt from them, as well as from the mistakes of others; you have the benefits of years of experience and learning; your intuitions are sharpened and your gut is finely tuned; you have the discipline and the stomach for major challenges, having already faced several in your life till then. How sad that it is at this time that Indian companies find you unsuitable for recruitment! And how amazingly stupid!

I have interviewed hundreds of young MBA’s and other graduates, for final placements and internships. And do you know what I found? I was shocked to see that many of these young fresh minds were already old and rigid, lacking the ability to learn, adjust and grow! Their minds were already made up as to what was possible and what was not possible, as well as how things could be done and how they couldn’t!

I was stunned to see these interns and MBA’s tell me something couldn’t work even though I had already made it work several times before, or made it work right in front of their eyes. It is a lie that young people are always creative or flexible, or that old people are inflexible and rigidly set in their ways.

These are biases against age, and as it is being called these days, ageism; yes, like racism, or sexism, but with age.

India suffers from a lot of problems and the latest is ageism.

Another interesting thing that blew my mind while listening to my friend was this – they did not ask him for his educational qualifications!

He actually pointed it out during the onboarding process because he thought they had made some errors. The reply he received was, “We don’t care about that because what matters at this stage is your experience, expertise and suitability for the position.”

Isn’t that incredibly sane?! After 15-20 years, the only thing that should be relevant is the competency reflected by your work experience and accomplishments. Your education, although vital in your formative years, has absolutely no bearing or relevance to what you are now!

Even if you had the best Ivy League education, if you have squandered away the next 15-20 years, your certificates count for nothing. On the other hand, if you are merely a graduate – or not even that – yet if you have risen to a senior level simply on the basis of your hard work, talent and ability, then that is all that matters. Your lack of education is irrelevant.

An argument made for hiring younger people compared to older ones, is that the younger candidates are more creative and innovative. But that is hardly always true.

Older people are not necessarily rigid and stuck in their ways, nor are young people necessarily creative and innovative. Many of the new companies being founded, the startups that are raising huge funding, are not necessarily a product of great genius. Take FB, for instance. It was an accident. The only thing on Mark Zuckerberg’s mind was to have a site where they could find out more about a guy or a girl they were interested in dating. The only skill the guy had was writing code.

But it was an idea whose time had come and so it caught on and spread. It has made Mark a multi-billionaire, but it does not prove that he was smarter than all the others. Of course, my saying this would be considered something close to sacrilege because of the blind adulation that follows this lad everywhere. But that’s perfectly okay.

It is vital that we think seriously about things before we simply swallow them like gullible fools. Just because everybody does something does not mean that it is right or the best thing to do. This mob mentality must be overcome. And it is up to the saner heads to realize this and to make use of the immense wealth of experience and skills that older professionals have to offer to companies today.

In this age, many jobs and enterprises will be software and internet related and certain skills are required for that, but managing people is the greatest skill a leader must have; and that is not taught in institutes, it cannot be taught, but it must be learned!

And that comes over time. Time means a few grey hairs. Or many. Time means some failures. Failures mean pain. And pain means learning, endurance, strength and toughness. And that is what gives you the makings of a leader; you have demanded a lot from yourself and delivered it, and now you are qualified to demand it from others. You have failed and fallen, so you have the compassion to be patient with your employee or subordinate who is struggling.

You have understood how to turn adversities into opportunities by simply changing the way you look at things, and so you are in the best position to mentor and guide the younger lot through their tricky and difficult times, by helping them change the way they think and look at things.

This is a long journey and you have come a far way. It is only now that you are truly qualified to taste the rewards, to savour them and yet not be ruined by them; either by being lifted up in pride and hubris, or by the wealth that accompanies success such that you despise those less accomplished.

It is not right that people who have acquired skills, expertise and experience over several years should be deprived of the rewards that should rightfully be theirs simply because the HR department or the Company has fixed an arbitrary age limit as an eligibility criterion that excludes them.

If you are an HR Head and reading this, I humbly urge you to do your best to change the thinking within your own organization so that you will not bar meritorious candidates simply because of their age, besides, of course, their gender, skin colour or their caste/religion.


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