Fostering age diversity in your workplace

In this part of Work45+ we cover:

All workplaces are different, and older people are as individual as people of any other age. This means there is no single recipe for creating a business that can reap the benefits of age diversity.

The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) recognises that certain strategies will be better suited to large businesses than time-poor smaller enterprises.1 However, it also notes that small businesses have come up with some of the most innovative approaches.

Below are actions that will help you create an age-diverse workplace where older workers thrive.

First tackle ageism

True age diversity is impossible in a workplace where there is ageism.

“Ageism is the stereotyping and discrimination against individuals or groups on the basis of their age; ageism can take many forms, including prejudicial attitudes, discriminatory practices, or institutional policies and practices that perpetuate stereotypical beliefs.”
– World Health Organization2

Ageism is the opposite of age equality. Anyone can experience it and it’s always unacceptable.

In workplaces, ageism often takes the form of discrimination against older workers.1 Yet it’s frequently overlooked or unconscious. This may be because it can potentially happen to all of us one day, unlike discrimination against a particular gender or race.

In academic terms, ageism has become “institutionalised”, meaning many people who practise or overlook it in the workplace don’t even realise they’re being prejudiced.

Ageism is not only evident in the hiring practices of some organisations (see our web page “Age equality“). It can also influence decisions about who to train, who to promote and who to retrench. And it can be heard in jokes and language that stereotype older workers in ways that are not supported by the evidence (see our web page “Benefits of older workers“).

To avoid ageism in the workplace, we need to make age equality the norm. To do this, organisations should help all staff feel as if age equality is part of business culture – “the way things are simply done and have always been done”.3

This is more likely to happen when:

  • staff of all ages feel they make a strong contribution and are valued because of their experience rather than their age
  • hiring practices clearly draw from all age groups
  • new recruits are put in positions that make the most of their potential, regardless of their age.3

The following video from EveryAGE Counts is simple, short introduction to ageism and how to avoid it.

Create a checklist

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry has identified specific practices that will help create a workplace where older staff feel welcome and valued.5

  • Review attitudes towards employing mature-aged workers
    for bias and ageism.
  • Dispel myths and misconceptions with evidence.
  • Have a commitment to change and implement sound
    policies and practices to assist in recruiting and retaining
    mature aged workers.
  • Have an holistic human resource strategy of lifelong
    education and remedial measures, which can be effective
    in avoiding intergenerational conflict.
  • Promote cultural change in the way that the community
    perceives mature-aged workers.
  • Encourage early involvement of mature-aged workers of
    any policy changes.
  • Review the organisational culture to ensure it benefits the
    business as a whole and employees whatever their age.
  • Identify alternative jobs or flexible work arrangements.
  • Introduce age-awareness training for HR personnel,
    managers and other key personnel.
  • Remove ageist barriers in language, processes and
    policies that might hinder retaining or recruiting mature
    aged workers.

Equal Opportunity Tasmania recommends adding the following to your checklist:

  • Have workplace policies that make it clear that age discrimination is prohibited.
  • Consider anti-discrimination training for employees.

Take a life-course approach

The concept of a life-course approach is a good way to summarise a range of practices that promote age diversity in the workplace.

According to COTA Tasmania, a life-course approach “considers the individual’s socioeconomic and personal circumstances across their lifespan and supports them in a way that acknowledges opportunities for:

  • skills development
  • work flexibility options
  • job role modifications
  • health and safety support
  • retirement or career transition.” 4

We suggest starting your discussion about the first four of these during each new employee’s induction, as recommended in the video below.

Lead by example

Drawing on a wealth of national and international research, COTA Tasmania has found that leadership is one of the key attributes of workplaces where older people are more likely to thrive.6

Workplace culture is profoundly influenced by the actions and values of owners and managers. Other staff will take their lead from the language you use when you talk to, and about, older workers and job seekers. The policies and practices you introduce to dispel stereotypes and ensure equal opportunity for staff of all ages will gain credibility from your open endorsement and implementation.

It is also important to be aware that staff are adept at identifying tokenism. If you model respect, goodwill and consistency yourself, it is more likely that these attributes will become defining features of your workplace. Once that happens, you will start to build trust among older workers and a reputation as an age-friendly workplace.

In the following video, HR specialist Dianne Underwood and Career Options Tasmania’s Anne Kirby-Fahey discuss the importance of leadership in creating a workplace where all ages thrive. They begin by examining key aspects of induction before explaining that successful cultural change starts at the top.

Inductions, workplace culture and leadership

Anne Kirkby-Fahey (AKF), Career Options Tasmania

Dianne Underwood (DU), formerly Federal Group

Should older workers be inducted any differently from younger recruits?

DU – Anne and I spoke recently about induction processes generally and that in the inducting people it’s one of the most important things you can do in a company. You’re inducting them into the reason for your existence and you want your workers believing in your purpose, in the organisation and that’s the importance of an induction and from my perspective an induction starts from the moment you send that job ad out. So, you’re engaging the community in what you’re there to do and therefore, there are parts of the induction that need to be consistent for every single employee. But what this question really goes to the heart of is when you’re inducting workers, not only older workers, it’s about the manager that’s working with them finding individually about what makes them tick; “How am I going to motivate you?”, “How am I going to get the best out of you?”, “What are your strengths, weaknesses, barriers to performing well?”, “How can I be a better manager or leader for this person?”. An induction, I wouldn’t say you treat older workers any differently from anyone else, but the important thing to note is that induction is only successful if you’re getting to the heart of what makes that individual tick. So, every induction has to be individualised in that respect, therefore, from an older workers perspective, they’re going to be wanting different things naturally than someone who’s just entering the workforce for the first time. It may not necessarily be, it may not be career progression, I’m generalising there, but as a result; “What do you want out of your work, life?” and “How can I ensure when you come in to work for me every day that it’s a great experience for you therefore it’s going to be a great experience for me as well”.

AKF – I’d like to just follow up on that because there’s the induction and then so much of what you’re talking about now is also what we say to people who are going to manage you in the first three months. It is up to your manager to also be touching base and having really good conversations like that, but don’t assume it’s going to happen because so often: “Oh thank goodness, we’ve got the warm body, get on with the work” and so many people say “Well, I passed my probation time but nobody’s said anything”. So, we say to people “You know, here’s about your first 90 days, this is what’s important. Let’s have a check list, have do this, do that”. You’ve got to make sure that all those good conversations happen, without being pushy, but put it in the diary, ask for them and get to know your boss just as much as he needs to get to know you, he or she, because they are the ones that make the biggest difference to a workers working life.

How can employers create a workplace culture where all workers are respected?

DU – So, employers can create a workplace environment where all workers are respected and respect each other, but it’s not easy, is it? You’re speaking to the heart of what all workplaces strive for and: it’s a great culture. But there’s not one thing that describes a culture, it’s all about the behaviours and the way people go about their business. Often, people put your purpose, your vision mission up on the wall and expect that that’s it and you see other behaviours going on. It’s about opting in and out of cultures that you like or you don’t in workplaces and, so often, I see people and then, [to AFK] you would see this all the time, where in one workplace a person just does not fit in and it’s a bit of a train wreck of an experience and then they move to their next job and they thrive and you can see it in every part of their being and that’s about people engaging or not with the culture of the workplace. It’s one of the hardest things employers can do and, frankly, why I’ve been employed for the last 30 years has been all about the fact that it’s change management and cultural change, you know, “What’s the gap between the culture we want and the culture we’ve got and how do we bridge that gap?”.

What is the role of leadership in creating a respectful workplace?

DU – The tone’s set from the top when setting the culture. The board and the CEO and the senior executive need to walk the walk, and the way you set the tone is not to assume that everyone is the same. We’re all individuals, we all come with our own good stuff and bad baggage and the like and it’s actually about being open enough to accept people for their, those individual traits that they bring to the workplace. But acknowledge that as a positive thing. I’m pretty much a “glass half-full” person; I think you can turn any poor behaviour in the workplace around, but that requires a lot of time and energy from people at the top to do things differently. And, I think the message is, I truly believe the one thing is getting people at the top of any ladder in any organisation to set the tone around the culture and the respect for one another and everyone else will follow suit.

Can you give an example of successful cultural change in a workplace?

DU – My experience with Colony 47 has been amazing. The CEO, Danny Sutton, actually came along and started a values-based approach with his cultural change case at Colony 47 around “What are the values that I’m seeing? What do our people want?” and, it’s one of those organisations – you walk in and you see the values and they’re unusual ones. They’re not the usual trust and respect and passion and whatever the usual ones are. They’re unique to the organisation and people pick each other up on those values as well. It’s an amazing thing to see when someone gets it right, but it usually takes the drive from the senior levels of the organisation for that to occur.

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Video credits
  • Dianne Underwood is the former People and Culture Manager at Wrest Point and Country Club Casinos. Dianne is on the boards of Colony 47 and Westpac Rescue Helicopter Tasmania.
  • Anne Kirby-Fahey is a career coach and Board member of Career Options Tasmania.
  1. Australian Human Rights Commission 2016 ,Willing to Work: National Inquiry into Employment Discrimination Against Older Australians and Australians with Disability
  2. World Health Organization 2020, Ageing and Life-Course
  3. Cortijo, V, McGinnis, L, and Sisli-Ciamarra, E, 2018, “The AGE Model: Addressing Ageism in the Workplace Through Corporate Social Responsibility”, Labor and Society, no. 22, p. 209
  4. COTA Tasmania, Recruiting for Life Experience: Older Workers Workforce Development Research Project, p. 10, reformatted as a list
  5. Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry 2014, Employ Outside the Box: The Business Case for Recruiting and Retaining Mature Age Worker, as summarised in COTA Tasmania 2017, Rethink Ageing: Recruiting for Life Experience: Summary
  6. COTA Tasmania, Recruiting for Life Experience: Older Workers Workforce Development Research Project, p. 66