Improving the recruitment of older workers

With the close of the furlough scheme at the end of September, there are growing signs that older workers have remained stuck on furlough during the reopening while younger workers have returned comparatively swiftly to work. Experts have also warned that older workers may be more likely to face unemployment once the scheme ends, prompting fears among these workers that they will face long spells of joblessness or even be forced into early retirement.

New research by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) suggests that older workers already face considerable discrimination in the labour market, particularly during the recruitment process. In 2020, three research projects were published respectively by the Institute for Employment Studies (IES), Demos and NIESR, as well as the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT).  They form part of a wider project entitled GROW – run by the Centre for Ageing Better – which aims to reduce age bias in the recruitment process. The projects have generated a considerable body of new evidence on the recruitment of older workers, using a range of research methodologies including: interviews with employers and HR professionals; experimental ‘testing’ of participants’ responses to mock job adverts; textual analysis of over 11 million real job adverts; and both survey and semi-structured interviews with workers aged fifty or over.

Despite compelling evidence that older workers face discrimination in the workplace, it seems that few employers or HR professionals consider age to be an organisational problem or an area in need of intervention. For example, the first report in the series, Shut out. How employers and recruiters are overlooking the talents of over 50s workers, found that most employers in the study lacked diversity strategies relating to age, viewing diversity only in terms of disability, gender, or ethnicity.  As a result, these recruiters rarely considered the potential for age bias in their recruitment procedures.

Yet clearly this bias is felt acutely by applicants and workers themselves, as demonstrated by the second report in the series: Too much experience. Older workers’ perceptions of ageism in the recruitment process. This study found that more than one third of 50-69- year-olds felt that their age would disadvantage them in applying for jobs. Moreover, among those who felt that they had experienced age discrimination, more than two-fifths believed that it had affected their health and well-being. Their testimonies also highlight how older workers can become increasingly selective about what jobs they apply for, often disregarding job adverts that show potential signs of age bias.

Indeed, the language used in job adverts is central to the reproduction of age bias and discrimination – a point explored in depth by the third report in the series, Understanding and improving recruitment language, imagery and messaging. Using innovative research methodologies from behavioural science, this report looks at how specific words and phrases are more or less likely to encourage older workers to apply for jobs. Similarly, it asks how certain working criteria or benefits, as listed in adverts, may encourage or disincentivize older applicants. These findings not only build upon our understanding of the experiences of older workers but they also provide concrete recommendations and tangible first steps for employers seeking to reduce age bias in their recruitment processes.  The report makes a number of additional recommendations for employers, including the use of diversity statements in job adverts, as well as changes to how and where job adverts are placed. These are just some of the recommendations that will inform the second phase of the GROW project, recently launched by the Centre for Ageing Better: in this phase, a variety of tools will be co-designed with employers and recruiters, and then tested for their overall effectiveness at reducing age bias in the recruitment process.

Taken together, the reports paint a sober picture of the current experiences of older workers during the recruitment process. Yet at the same time, they also lay the groundwork for future research and interventions that offer real promise for reducing age discrimination in the job market.

NIESR and the Centre for Ageing Better organised a free online event on 30 September in order to explore the wider implications of this new research (to access the recording and presentations, see here). The event presented the findings of the three reports, situating the current problems posed by the end of furlough within the broader experience of older workers in the job market and, specifically, their experiences during the recruitment process. The event provided a timely opportunity to discuss how and why these barriers exist, as well as to explore recommendations for change and better practice.


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