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Ageism in IT rears its ugly head

How to avoid being on the wrong side of IT age discrimination. 2_2_1001.xml hed: Ageism in IT rears its ugly head dek: How to avoid being on the wrong side of IT age discrimination. blurb: How to avoid being on the wrong side of IT age discrimination. number of pages: 2 By Molly Joss

A few aches and pains in the morning, invisible-line bifocals, a little more time spent studying your latest 401K statement–all telltale signs that you, too, are getting older. If you work in IT, you may have noticed some other signs–such as worrying about getting laid off or not getting the top assignments or best projects anymore. One day you may look around the conference room to find you’re the oldest person in the room. Everyone, including your boss, is younger than you.

If the prospect of finding yourself the oldest kid on the block makes you wonder if your career may be in jeopardy due to your age, you’re not alone. While the statistical evidence on age discrimination is sketchy, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence-and lots of people who feel they have been, or might be, the victim of age discrimination.

“I earned a B.S. degree in computer science at age 42 and afterward was laid off from a position of 10 years,” recalls an anonymous respondent to a recent Techies.com survey on age discrimination. I sent out over 100 résumés. I got my present job only by adjusting my r&eacutesumé so I would appear 10 years younger. I made changes in appearance (goatee, dyed beard, etc.) to look younger at my interview. After I was hired, management was shocked when they found out my true age from HR. If I had known what I know now, I would have never chosen computer science as my major in college.”

Age discrimination cuts both ways–older and younger IT workers reported in the Techies.com survey being victims of ageism. One younger respondent, who also wished to remain anonymous, explained his dilemma: “I’m under 18 and am already certified and at a master level in many languages and protocols. I run my own software/Web design business rather successfully and come into contact with age discrimination from my clients daily.”

But far more anecdotal evidence cuts the other way. Take this respondent: “At age 47, while unemployed, I met with a veterans counselor at the Oregon State Employment Service. The counselor’s first comment to me was, ‘I don’t want to tell you there is age discrimination in the workplace, but go home and dye your hair.'”

The fact that managers prefer younger applicants is almost taken for granted in IT. Proving this with statistics is almost impossible, because IT managers would never admit to anything that might bring liability to themselves or their companies. But supposing that we can believe the hundreds of anecdotal claims COMPUTERUSER has received over the last two years, what should older workers do to protect themselves?

Know your rights

If you want to banish the specter of age discrimination from your career, you can’t turn back time and make yourself younger. You can lie about your age on your résumé and turn to the hairdresser or plastic surgeon for help. These strategies may help you in the short term, but lying overtly or covertly is never a good idea in the long term.

There are other steps you can take. The first is to know your rights under the law; age discrimination, in some cases, is illegal. That means that you can take your case to court and you might win. Or, you might not. When it comes to age discrimination, what’s illegal in your eyes might be fair business practice to a judge or jury.

In 1967, Congress passed the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA); the act makes it illegal for an employer to refuse to hire or to deliberately fire someone 40 years old or older simply on the basis of age. The act also makes it illegal to discriminate against someone 40 or older with respect to his or her compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment–or to advertise for employment indicating any preference or specification based on age. Many states also have laws banning job-related discrimination based on age; some states have a lower age threshold than the ADEA.

The ADEA and related legislation exist to protect older employees, but employers are allowed to restrict the age range of jobs when they can prove there are compelling business or safety reasons to do so. Just as airlines have the right to specify who can and can’t sit in the exit aisle of an airplane (based on certain physical conditions), employers have the right to limit some jobs based on physical capability that may be related to age.

The ADEA applies only to the employer/employee relationship. Independent contractors are not employees and are not covered by this statute. They may, in some cases, be covered under state age discrimination laws. So, if you’re an independent contractor and you think you have been discriminated against because of your age, your best bet is to check with your state Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In the IT industry, where jobs are largely sedentary and little heavy lifting is required, many managers and employees have trouble sorting out what may constitute age discrimination. Some managers have specific age-related mental biases and make hiring, firing, and promotion decisions based upon these biases. They may not talk openly about these biases to employees–or even be aware of them. Actions speak louder than words (sometimes) and uninformed actions related to age discrimination can land a company in court.

Case in point: In June 2001, a Boston federal court ruled that Bull HN Information Systems of Billerica violated the Older Worker Benefit Protection Act (another federal age discrimination law passed in 1990 that amended the ADEA) over a three-year period. The company allegedly required older workers who were laid off during that time to sign a waiver of their ADEA rights in order to obtain their severance benefits.

Such waivers are allowed only if they follow guidelines set up by the federal government and comply with ADEA requirements. “Older employees who are asked to sign waiver agreements have specific statutory rights under the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act,” says Katherine Bissell, regional attorney of EEOC’s New York District Office, which filed the suit.

If you believe that you have been the victim of age discrimination in the workplace and wish to discuss the matter with an attorney, find one who specializes in workplace law. The American Bar Association Web site maintains a state-by-state list of lawyers.

Don’t forget to do your own homework, even if you do talk with a lawyer or two. Also worth consulting are the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and the National Employee Rights Institute. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers USA (IEEE) has devoted a section of its Web site to the topic of age discrimination in IT. The materials available through this section will also help you decide whether you have a chance in court.

Deciding to pursue the matter in court is a decision only you can make. “It’s very, very difficult to prove [age discrimination],” explains Lori McCann, legal counsel to AARP. Sometimes you can have good evidence and you can lose. It’s a huge personal decision to make.”

Sometimes, though, winning isn’t the only goal a plaintiff has in mind; sometimes it’s simply a matter of wanting to do the right thing. McCann recalls the story of a woman who turned to AARP for legal help. “The woman was told point-blank she was too old for the job during an interview,” she recalls. McCann says the woman was aware she might not win the case, but wanted to make sure companies knew “they can’t get away with stuff like that.”

Buck the biases

If going the legal route isn’t something you’re prepared to do, there are other steps you can take to combat ageism in the IT industry–particularly as it affects you and your career. They revolve around rebutting the biases that managers sometimes have when it comes to older (age 35 and older) IT workers.

Prof. Peter Capelli, a professor of management and director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, sums up these perceptions in his report, “Is There a Shortage of Information Technology Workers?” “Older workers, particularly those with families, cannot or will not work the punishing hours that are typical in software. Older workers may not have skills that are most current. … Older workers may demand more money than younger workers to reward their expertise.” He also says that adding to the difficulty is the sense that “younger IT managers find it difficult to manage older workers or at least are fearful of trying.”

Cynthia Morgan, vice president of content and executive producer at Techies.com, agrees that multiple biases exist when it comes to all aspects of employee management, including hiring, “Managers don’t have experience in discerning good candidates. They tend to pick people they are comfortable with.” And the people they are comfortable with tend to be people like themselves–which in IT often means under 35 and single.

What’s a good IT worker to do once she starts seeing a few gray hairs in the mirror? Morgan says the best defense against ageism is a good offense. Letting people know you’re ready, willing, and able to do the work is paramount. “Take on new projects, develop new skills, bring a lot of energy to the job,” Morgan counsels.

She says it’s also important for people to continue to learn throughout their careers, no matter how old they are. “They should continue to upgrade their skill sets and make sure the people around them know they are doing that. They should make sure they have a high degree of skill in high-demand areas, and stress their flexibility as much as they can.”

Younger people need to do their best to make sure they are putting forth an image of dependability and capability. They may indeed know what they’re doing, but their youthful appearance and demeanor can work against them. The best thing younger workers can do is continue to acquire skills, Morgan says.

A word to IT managers

Capelli reaches an interesting conclusion in his report–one other industry watchers and business analysts have also reached. He says the shortage of IT workers that has been noted by several recent studies reflects nothing more than a tight labor market. He suggests that IT management take a hard look at its recruiting, training, and promotion practices–and take a look beyond the biases he spells out in the report.

He notes that IT managers need to take a long, hard look at how they manage their employees. “The shortage of IT professionals that most employers see results, at least in part, from management practices that drive turnover from the industry, that result in misplaced recruiting, and that make it difficult to accommodate differences in contributions,” he writes.

McCann says that managers can, and should, ask questions during interviews about a candidate’s flexibility, desired compensation, and time pressures. Such questions are not illegal if the manager asks them of every candidate, regardless of age, and if the job really does carry the requirements the manager is mentioning.

IT managers may not even be aware that their biases are creating prejudice against older workers, and thus preventing them from finding the best man or woman for the job. Managers need to ask themselves some serious questions about their own ageist mindsets; they may be doing themselves, and their companies, more harm than good by focusing on young, single candidates to the exclusion of seasoned veterans.

Mind over matter

The saying, “Age–if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter,” isn’t always applicable when it comes to IT and jobs. Biases, spoken and unspoken, toward people in their late 30s and older can prevent IT companies from finding enough good employees to carry out their corporate objectives. If that’s the case, age matters a lot–and it doesn’t have to be that way. Older IT employees and job seekers can take positive steps to make sure that they counter these biases as much as possible. IT managers need to take a fresh look at what they believe older workers are willing and able to do.

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