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Analysis

Using tech to combat ageism at work: HR leaders weigh in

Remote work can be a double edged sword.

Aishwarya Jagani

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Photo by Yolk CoWorking - Krakow on Unsplash.

Unleash Your Workforce Technology has immense potential in the quest to build more diverse and inclusive workplaces, and prevent ageism, right from recruitment to retirement — but it can come with its own pitfalls.

  • AI-based programs are effective in removing personal data fields from the algorithms that shortlist candidates, to ensure candidates of a certain age range, race, or gender aren’t being favored.
  • Remote work can prevent ageism at work, while also being a double-edged sword for older workers, who may be perceived as not possessing the tech skills required to sustain this type of working.
  • AI systems are fallible and can perpetuate biases like sexism and ageism at work.

UK workers aged 65 and above are expected to make up over two-thirds of employment growth by 2060, and more than 20% of Americans over 60 are currently part of the workforce. Yet, age-based discrimination at work is pervasive and can impact careers poorly; from recruitment to retirement.

A 2021 Forbes study indicated that 1 in 5 workers over 40, and 1 in 4 workers over 60, have experienced age discrimination in some form at their workplace. Older workers were also the first to lose their jobs when the pandemic hit, with workers aged 55 and older 17% more likely to lose their jobs than younger workers, in 2020, according to the American Association of Retired Persons.

The use of technology and diversity tools, particularly AI-based tools, can be effective in weeding out discrimination and inherent biases. But although AI can eliminate bias, it has also the potential to pick up on and perpetuate the very same biases that humans display.

“This goes back to the fallibility of programming, and the idea of ‘garbage in/garbage out.’ Software is subject to the unconscious biases of the programmers. This has been well-documented,” says John Tarnoff, reinvention career coach for older professionals.

TWEAKING AI TO PROMOTE GREATER AGE DIVERSITY

Rolf Bax, CHRO at Resume.io, a resume builder and career insights company, says, “One thing we have done over the past year to help get rid of ageism in our hiring and recruitment practices is to tweak the AI that we use to sort and shortlist candidate applications.”

“It was based on something we had already done previously that removed certain personal data fields from the algorithms sorting because it was disproportionately selecting male candidates for certain roles and teams. Since then we have also removed the age field to make sure our hiring process was as neutral and disinterested as possible,” he notes.

Bax also adds, “We are no longer seeing applicant shortlists that are exclusively millennial and Gen Z. It does not seek to increase the number of older new hires, but to give people of all ages an equal opportunity during the application process.”

Companies, including HackerEarth, a remote tech management firm, are following suit by using tools and programs that hide personally identifiable information. This goes a long way in filtering in older candidates who may otherwise have been passed over by someone going through resumes.

When a recruiter sees a candidate profile, they will only see information pertinent to the job at hand such as skills, expertise, and experience. This can even be carried forward into interviews, with cameras turned off and names replaced with anonymous pseudonyms as candidates collaborate with a member of the hiring team on a coding challenge” Sachin Gupta, the founder of HackerEarth, told Dice.

REMOTE WORK AND AGEISM

Remote work can bring about more diversity by allowing disabled or mobility impaired workers access to jobs that can be done from home, making it easier for single parents or primary caregivers to juggle work and home responsibilities, and reducing the need to ‘code switch’, which refers to the pressure Black, POC, or marginalized people may feel to adjust their accent and speech in order to appear more ‘professional’. In fact, 97% of black workers report preferring remote work, compared to just 79% of white workers.

Remote work also overcomes geographical barriers — letting employers pick diverse talent globally. But when it comes to age diversity, remote work can be a double-edged sword. While on one hand, recruiting and hiring remotely may not leave room for the unconscious bias that creeps in when, say, a recruiter encounters a candidate with grey hair interviewing for a fast-paced tech position, older workers may also be perceived as being slow to adapt to the technology and connectivity working remotely requires.

Overcoming these deep-rooted biases is a challenge, but the use of virtual reality is emerging as an effective solution. Virtual reality training initiatives like Pivotal Experiences, designed by Praxis Labs, let workers interact with avatars in simulated scenarios and react to instances of implicit bias, like ageism or racism. VR systems have been proven to be effective at eliciting empathy, according to separate studies by ScienceDirect, the University of Barcelona, and others.

These programs allow workers to get “to get as close as you can to experiencing the perspective of someone else,” according to Elise Smith, co-founder, and CEO of Praxis Labs.

THE PITFALLS OF BIASED AI

But not everyone agrees that tech-based tools are particularly helpful in dispelling bias, particularly when it comes to AI. John Tarnoff says, “The challenge for recruiting generally, and specifically when it comes to age discrimination (as well as other forms of discrimination) is that technology invariably distances people from one another.”

“When it comes to making an informed decision about a person’s ability to do a job, quantifiable data only tells us part of the story.  If we want to perpetuate the industrial era, where people were interchangeable cogs in the faceless factory system, then AI software and Applicant Tracking Systems are doing just that,” he continued.

A 2020 study from the University of Melbourne demonstrated how an AI algorithm trained with data derived from a human panel’s preferences discriminated against women and was likelier to pick men’s resumes for the roles of a data analyst, finance officer, and recruitment officer.

“Even when the names of the candidates were removed, AI assessed resumés based on historic hiring patterns where preferences leaned towards male candidates,” co-author of the study, Dr Marc Cheong, said in a statement published on the university’s site.

WHAT HR LEADERS CAN DO

While the HR tech landscape offers a wide variety of tools designed to prevent ageism or other forms of discrimination and foster diversity at work, understanding the problem well before trying to solve it, is important.

“Make sure you understand what is causing the discrimination before asking an AI to remedy it. In our case, we knew why people were being excluded from some of our hiring processes. Aimlessly releasing AI or technology on a diversity and equity issue might end up doing more harm than good,” says Rolf Bax.

John Tarnoff adds, “The first step is to realize that this is a problem, and that a multi-generational workforce is a benefit to the enterprise overall. Incorporating age diversity as part of a company’s overall Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion practice and training program would be a great first step in addressing the problem.”

Tom Winter, HR tech recruitment advisor and co-founder of DevSkiller, a developer screening and online interviewing platform, offered a different perspective, emphasising on the need to reskill and train older employees in order to give them the skills they need to succeed in the talent marketplace.

“The times are changing and the skills needed in the workplace are very different from a decade ago.This can cause discriminatory hiring and employment practices for older participants in the job market,” he said.

“Your work environment can avoid this ageism by championing internal promotions rather than hiring new, young employees. You should also have reskilling and development training opportunities for your older employees, giving them the opportunity to learn technologies that will make them more productive in the modern workplace.”

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