Jacquelyn B. James, PhD, Sharon McKechnie, PhD & Elyssa Besen

Jacquelyn B. James, PhD, Sharon McKechnie, PhD & Elyssa Besen

These days, people who wouldn’t dream of making racial and ethnic slurs can be heard agreeing with ageist comments and laughing at jokes about older people.

The workplace is not free of these attitudes. According to a 2009 survey of workers and job seekers between the ages of 55 and 70, 43 percent of those who were currently seeking work or who had retired because they could not find work said the main problem was “they could not find an employer who would hire someone their age.” Nearly a quarter of all charges brought to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last year claimed discrimination on the basis of age. Nevertheless, ageism—discrimination on the basis of age—is a diversity issue that employers in the United States are only beginning to understand.

Certainly employers worry about avoiding legal action by older workers whom they lay off or pass up for promotion. But are they thinking deeply about the impact that the perception of bias might have on their employees generally—even those who don’t sue? A recent study that we conducted at Boston College’s Sloan Center on Aging & Work suggests they should. (The results will be published in the June 2012 issue of the Journal of Managerial Psychology.)

We wondered, does the perception of age bias in the workplace have an impact on employees’ motivation or sense of engagement in their jobs? To answer this question, we surveyed more than 4,000 retail workers (ranging in age from 18 to 94) in three regions of the United States.

Studying perceptions of age bias in the workplace is quite a challenge; employers are understandably reluctant to allow researchers to ask direct questions about actual experiences of age bias. Instead we asked respondents the extent to which they agreed with the statement, “Workers age 55 and older are just as likely to be promoted as younger workers.” We interpreted disagreement with that statement as indirect evidence of perceived age bias. We also probed perceptions of older workers’ capabilities for promotion, by asking the extent to which employees agreed with statements about older workers’ flexibility, ability to adapt to new technology, interest in training, and eagerness for promotion—traits deemed to be important for productive work.

Age bias can be intentional or unintentional. Our study tested the hypothesis that the difference between the two matters in terms of the extent to which bias is seen as fair or unfair, and thus the extent to which the perception of bias might affect work motivation.

For example, if employees believe that older workers should step aside and allow younger employees to move up, seeing older workers passed over for promotions should strike them as fair, and their sense of engagement and motivation at work should not diminish. Since all age bias is discriminatory, we refer to this phenomenon as perceived unintentional discrimination.

Similarly, employees who believe that older workers generally are not worthy of promotions because they lack flexibility, the capacity to adapt to new technology, interest in training, and eagerness for promotions should consider it fair for older workers as a group to be passed over for promotions. This, too, we reasoned, is a perception of unintentional bias that would not be likely to depress work engagement.

In contrast, if employees view older workers as a group as both capable and eager for promotions that are denied, the bias these employees observe would be perceived intentional discrimination, and its effect should be to decrease work engagement.

One result of our study surprised us. As we expected, the survey responses of employees of all ages who perceived that workers age 55 and older were less likely to be promoted than younger workers showed these employees to be less engaged in their work than those who did not perceive such discrimination. Also as expected, the perception of unintentional discrimination was more strongly related to lower employee engagement among older workers than younger workers. Our hypothesis did not prepare us for the finding that the perception of intentional discrimination was actually more strongly related to lower employee engagement among younger workers than older workers.

In practical terms, the perception of discrimination, whether intentional or unintentional, against older workers across age groups creates a difficult environment for managers. Perceptions of age bias in promotion decisions seem to make employees less likely to go that extra mile, even those who believe such bias is fair.
Managers can take steps to alleviate this kind of workplace stress. Recent research in management science yields the following recommendations:

  • develop the ability to recognize stereotyping when it happens
  • avoid basing any decisions—especially those related to layoffs—on age
  • provide diversity training with age in the mix
  • use older workers to their competitive advantage

Our research shows why taking steps like these not only keep companies out of court but are good for business in every way.


Jacquelyn B. James, PhD
Director of Research
Sloan Center on Aging & Work
Phone: 617.552.2860
Email: jamesjc@bc.edu

Sharon McKechnie, PhD
Assistant Professor of Management
Emmanuel College
Phone: 617.975.9422
Email: mckecsh@emmanuel.edu

Elyssa Besen
Doctoral Research Assistant
Sloan Center on Aging & Work
Phone: 617.552.1354