ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO, JUNE 11, 1998
“Preventing Age Discrimination”
David Molpus, Chapel Hill
Robert Siegel, Washington
Robert Siegel, Host:
This is All Things Considered. I’m Robert Siegel.
This week, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued new regulations concerning the rights of older workers when they’re terminated. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act was passed in 1967 to protect workers and job applicants who are at least 40 years old. Today, charges of age discrimination account for 20% of all the complaints filed with the EEOC.
As NPR’s David Molpus reports, many companies are searching for ways to increase awareness of age discrimination and to manage age-related conflict at work.
David Molpus, NPR Reporter:
Age bias in the workplace, experts, say, is widespread but subtle, and often couched in language about productivity. Ben Rosen, a management professor at the University of North Carolina Business School in Chapel Hill, says age bias can come into play when companies are downsizing.
Older workers, Rosen says, are often stereotyped as being more rigid, less creative, poor at mastering new skills, more likely to have technology phobias.
Ben Rosen, Management Professor, UNC Business School:
To the extent that managers hold these age stereotypes, they can in a sense, create self-fulfilling prophecies. They treat older employees as if they’re even less capable.
Over time, older employees get less training and less development and less good feedback, and as a result of it, they do start to slip. And if they perform less well, organizations are saying: well, they’re expensive employees to keep; maybe they should be the first candidates for termination.
Rosen and other experts say there is scant research to warrant negative perceptions of workers based on age. There are too many individual differences, researchers say.
Employers understandably rarely admit to practicing age bias, but some do acknowledge circumstances that make age differences problematic. Steve Hanceford is Operations Manager for the Bayer Pharmaceutical Corporation’s sales force in the Southeast.
Steve Hanceford, Operations Manager, Bayer Southeast Business Area:
The pharmaceutical business in general, after downsizing about three years ago, is growing like crazy. It’s one of the fastest growing industries. And we’re hiring a lot of new, younger people.
In fact, we’ve got many younger managers, and in many situations, we have some career representatives taking direction and they’re taking their lead from somebody that might be younger than their children.
Since sales reps work more as teams than as individuals these days, the new situation makes for some interesting dynamics. At a gathering of Bayer workers in Charlotte, North Carolina, one of the younger managers talked about the anxieties of older workers towards technology.
Soundbite of a crowd at a meeting
Bayer Corporation Manager:
A classic commercial on TV is the old man who walks in the kitchen and beats on the microwave and says: “How do you get the news on this thing?”
You know, we all have senior reps and they’ll tell you flat out they don’t like the laptop computers. How do you motivate that generation to use the laptop computer? Because that’s the way it’s done.
Last year, in an effort to be more proactive about generational tensions, Bayer started holding day-long training sessions on age diversity for its sales force. Steve Hanceford says initial reaction was less than enthusiastic.
At first we had people roll their eyes and say, “Oh, another diversity program!” Or they said, “Why do we have to do this? We understand how to treat people.”
Now, though, participants say they actually look forward to attending these sessions, mainly because the diversity trainers use drama short skits based on real-life experiences are the centerpiece of the training. In this case, the acting scenes flow from interviews the trainers conducted ahead of time with a cross-section of the Bayer sales force.
Soundbite of a crowd at a diversity training session
Supervisor: Why don’t you introduce the new line to the physicians?
Younger Worker: Good idea, go with that, yeah…
Older Worker: Boy, you know, you’re missing the whole point. By collectively making a presentation…
Younger Worker: Oh, God! Oh, you know what? I’ve just got to make a quick call. I gotta be on the other side of town.
Older Worker: Could we please finish one conversation before you go rushing off to the next point?
Younger Worker: Rick, some of us can handle more than one thought at a time, OK? I’m supposed to be across town. I just got to call them and let…
Older Worker: Some of us like to finish one project before we go on to the next project.
Younger Worker: Whatever.
The drama-based training is run by a firm located in New Kingston, New York, called PACT Training.
Their client list includes AT&T, Kraft Foods and the military academy at West Point.
The trainers set up a stressful scenario, then an employee joins in. PACT’s Co-Director, Joyce St. George, calls the sessions structured improvisations.
Joyce St. George, Co-Director, PACT Training:
We really would like to give people a chance to experience a sensitive or volatile situation within the safety and control of a classroom. And because they are dramatic, they’re lively; they’re engaging; they speak to not only the head, which is what most training focuses on, but also to the heart of the matter. And when we talk about diversity, we’re really talking about heart issues.
PACT team members are trainers first; acting is a secondary skill. They never preach at participants or try to impose a point of view, except in one area. They hammer away at the importance of human emotions in workplace relationships. “Feelings,” St. George says, “are as important as logic or experience in driving our work behavior.”
The dramatizations help bring feelings to life with dialogue that represents what characters would say if speaking freely. In this skit, the assertive young saleswoman is called in by her supervisor for a chat about cooperating with her older sales partner.
Soundbite of a crowd at a diversity training session.
Younger Worker: Listen, the problem is going to be getting good old Rick to do his share. Where is Obi Wan Kenobe, anyway? I thought we were scheduled to start on time today?
Supervisor: Maybe he got stuck in traffic. But you know what, you should not say that. We should look at Rick for his strengths.
Younger Worker: Help me out here, Nydia. What exactly would that be?
Supervisor: The doctors ¬ they love him. They love listening to his stories.
Younger Worker: Yeah, I know. That’s his problem. He thinks he’s still calling on the doctor in like “Little House on the Prairie” or something. I mean, Nydia, the guy has a melt-down at the very thought of a new initiative.
Christine, a Bayer sales manager who participated in the Charlotte training session, says she’s more aware now of the harm age bias can do in the workplace and more confident about confronting it directly.
Christine, Bayer Sales Manager:
It’s part of my personality ¬ part of my nature to want everything to run smoothly. And what I learned today from the interaction was that I needed to do, in hindsight, a better job of establishing standards. I need to say “halt the presses” and deal with that immediately and say that under my tenure, under my watch, that type of behavior or that type of verbalization about a colleague is unacceptable. Period.
When employees are part of the acting skits, they are not attempting to mimic some predetermined behavior or outcome. PACT trainer Joyce St. George says the approach is more about actions and consequences than right and wrong.
We’re trying to help people become more strategic and deliberate in how they manage these situations. We like people to become much more discerning about how they react, what their patterns are, what makes them tick, so that they become more able to make choices in how they want to work a situation.
Experts on age discrimination point out that it cuts both ways. Younger workers also are often victims of hidden assumptions. Companies like Bayer are finding that drama-based diversity training is effective at uncovering age bias and negotiating change.
I’m David Molpus, NPR News, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
© 1998, National Public Radio