The Endemic Nature of Ageism








Richard Chapman Harris, Diversity Advisor -Opportunity Now blogs on a recently attended event at the British Psychological Society

Title of event: Launch for the Journal of Organisational and Occupational Psychology Special Issue: Topic: Getting Diversity at Work to Work with the British Psychological Society
Main speakers: Yves Guillame, Aston Business School, Jeremy Dawson, University of Sheffield
Date: June 7th 2013                               

Attending the launch of the British Psychological Association’s Diversity Working Group I was pleasantly surprised by the parallels between the work of diversity practitioners and academics. Topical subjects such as unconscious bias, psychological safety and the productivity of diversity were all discussed from an academic approach. Several studies highlighted the importance of diversity from not only a social cohesion perspective but also as making business sense.

The session really highlighted a key area for me: age discrimination. Two studies were referenced and the collective message reinforces the endemic nature of ageism - across the spectrum - in our workplaces. Liebermann et all (2013) explored the impact of age and age stereotypes on team member health while Gilson et al (2013) looked at the cross-level effects of tenure diversity and if/how this knowledge and experience is shared across teams and the wider organisation. Both studies highlighted that age diversity needs to be carefully managed so that assumptions about younger workers as ‘inexperienced’ and older workers as ‘less dynamic’ are not compounded or reinforced to undermine productivity. Equally, experiences gained over longer tenure need to be diffused throughout the organisation to support creativity and ensure practical growth solutions.

For me these two areas of research are especially pertinent in today’s workplaces. In the UK, with the removal of the default retirement age in 2011, our workforce is ageing and employees are working longer. On the opposite end of the spectrum, more young people are entering the workplace as school-leavers, through apprenticeships, in work and study programmes or as graduates. This means that our workforces are becoming more diverse in the sense that the age gap between your eldest and youngest workers will be wider than ever before. How these different generations interact, cooperate and thrive will be down to effective management. Age awareness should therefore form part of all diversity and management courses. But this is not always explicitly the case at the moment and age discrimination claims, for example, have bucked the trend of employment tribunals by increasing more than 79% between 2008 – 2011, with an average award of over £30,000.

A further study cited the term ‘psychological safety’ ie. Where an employee feels they can be themselves at work (Singh et al (2013). Creating a safe environment will positively impact on employee productivity and performance. Helping all your staff feel included and valued for their individuality and diversity will positively impact returns. This concept has especially been championed by Stonewall who urge that ‘people perform better when they can be themselves’ – they are not having to hide aspects of themselves for fear of a negative reaction from colleagues and management. Fear, as we all know, does not support employee engagement or innovation, especially pertinent in challenging financial times.