Research findings show that not all human resource management (HRM) practices facilitate workplace success among older workers.* For instance, age‑awareness HRM practices such as training for older workers have the potential to cue these workers’ age as a stigmatizable characteristic.
HRM practices that segment the workforce on the basis of age groups may bring about perceptions of special treatment, inequality, and even resistance to those practices. Thus, instead of fostering inclusion, these practices increase ageism in at least two ways. On the one hand, they are likely to foster older workers’ endorsement of negative stereotypes about their own age group. On the other, they reinforce negative age stereotypes held by outgroup members, who may interpret special treatment practices as an organizational recognition of older workers’ ineffectiveness.
Both quantitative and qualitative studies in the manufacturing sector provide evidence of this backlash against older workers from specific HRM practices. These studies show that age‑awareness HRM practices effects can rebound, increasing the salience of negative stereotypes and older workers’ vulnerability to them. These practices can reinforce the stigma of incompetence borne by affirmative action recipients generally rather than contributing to workplace equality and inclusion.
On the contrary, older workers perceive HRM practices that value their experience (e.g., mentoring, reverse mentoring, and job sharing) as desirable, because they build self-confidence, psychological safety, and feelings of reciprocity toward the organization. These practices make older workers feel useful and respected, paving the way for older workers to cultivate a positive social identity, thereby counteracting group stigma.
More important, research findings have provided several insights on how to reduce older workers’ vulnerability to ageism in the workplace. First, in order to be effective, HRM practices should emphasize positive social identities that older workers share with their colleagues, rather than giving older workers special treatment that may, in the end, reinforce stigma. Second, given that specific HRM practices for older workers seem to damage this age group’s self-image, I suggest that HRM efforts should reframe stereotypical beliefs. One way to do this is through mentoring and reverse mentoring opportunities that allow direct transfer of knowledge and the creation of crosscutting ties between older and younger workers. Opportunities such as these build skills and open lines of communication among age groups, which in turn may contribute to the reframing of stereotypes. Last, irrespective of their nature, workplace interventions cannot be developed without taking into account all age groups. Organizations should develop HRM efforts based on equal treatment of all age groups, because some older workers interpret age‑awareness practices as discriminatory and resist them. In so doing, organizations will be in the best place to nurture identity safety for all employees and, hence, to include them, integrate them, and develop their full potential.
*Hennekam, S., & Herrbach, O. (2015). The influence of age-awareness versus general HRM practices on the retirement decision of older workers. Personnel Review, 44(1), 3-21. doi:10.1108/PR-01-2014-0031