Let’s consider an interview. You are on the interviewing panel for your firm. You’re looking for C++ developers. You’ve seen four young blades, all fire and brimstone and with more certificates, degrees and Boy Scout badges than they know what to do with. In walks the last candidate. She is clearly over 40. She is wearing a tweed skirt, has badly dyed hair and stout brogue shoes. She smells of cigar smoke. And she’s a black African.
Now you know you can’t discriminate against her on grounds of skin colour, nor because she’s a woman. The HR person sitting on the interview panel will have your guts for garters if you even think of either of those. And, intriguingly, she is clearly a very capable candidate – the best you’ve seen from the shortlist. But… “she won’t fit in – all our developers are college kids, they’ll never work with her…”
And so they don’t. Because she was too old. And you were too chicken to do the right thing. How – why – does this happen?
Well, some writers will tell you that your African lady who looks like the one we’ve described should have made more of an effort to ‘fit in’. I recently read a piece where it was suggested that for the older generation, and I quote, “The wrong personal style, clothes, work style, etc., can put unfortunate distance between you and your colleagues. If you work in an office where flip-flops and ironic T-shirts are the norm, wearing a tie starts you off in a hole with a shovel of dirt on your head.” Why does it matter? It does, we all know it does, but it should not. Discriminate on ability, by all means, but not on ties. Or brogues for that matter. You would not discriminate against the lady in our example because she’s a woman, so why would you discriminate against her on the grounds of her age? It is, in case you need reminding, against the law in Britain to do so.
Then again, we’ve got to be aware that, sometimes, older people haven’t kept their skills up to date. You can, of course, ‘discriminate’ (i.e. not give them a job) against anyone who does not match the specification for the role. Part of the problem are the attitudes each ‘side’ takes . Intergenerational conflict has been a feature of western society since the teenager was ‘invented’, if not before, and it’s a two-way street. If the over 40s look down snootily on their ‘wet behind the ears’ younger counterparts, it is perhaps not surprising if their hostility is reciprocated. But that doesn’t mean that any aged programmer can’t learn new stuff any more than it means that the lack of experience of a new graduate can’t speedily be made up.
Judgements made on individuals on the basis of age cohort (or any other) stereotypes are about as meaningless as the old canard that women couldn’t make it in the boardroom because they would be too busy worrying about their children. So, how do we change the mindset of those who only want to surround themselves with similarly bright young things? I’ll consider this in the third and final part of this series.
Gareth Biggerstaff, MD, BeIT Resourcing