Revealing the Hidden: Implicit Age Bias at the Workplace

Here is what is puzzling about people: we often seem to be inconsistent in our reactions to others without even being aware of it. If you like to think about yourself as egalitarian, please consider these: On a train, do you sit next to a white or a black passenger if you have a choice? How old is a professor and how old is a person delivering pizza? When you think “manager”, do you think about a man or a woman? This is what psychologists call an implicit bias. Research shows that it concerns all of us. Given demographic changes, it is especially important when applied to age.

In short, implicit bias is the spontaneous and automatic evaluation, resulting from a particular association that may serve as a ‘quick guide’ to expectation and behaviour. It may operate without our awareness, control or intention to harm. Therefore, what we deliberately and explicitly declare, expect and do, might be different from our spontaneous and implicit reactions. Implicit bias may sometimes be funny and easy to spot, however, it could also be alarming when it translates into subtle and hard- to-discover employment discrimination. Implicit bias was found to unintentionally and negatively affect work-related decisions about women, ethnic minorities or people suffering from obesity. Our research suggests that implicit bias may explain why people over the age of 50 are less frequently selected for jobs despite little evidence for an age-performance relation.

Implicit age bias is an important issue because by the year 2050 almost 152 millions of Europeans (28%) will be over 65 years old and encouraged to be professionally active. As we work in increasingly age-diverse environment, we face the need for unbiased evaluation of older colleagues and employees. Moreover, we all age and thus eventually face the challenge of coping with the implicit bias – this time directed towards us. Studies empirically measuring implicit bias (try it at http:// implicit.harvard.edu/implicit) report that older adults are disadvantaged compared to younger ones, also by older respondents. We found that implicit bias negatively affected the evaluation of older applicant and the intention to call him for an interview compared with younger applicant of equal qualifications. These findings raise awareness of spontaneous reactions to the applicant’s age and the importance of confronting ourselves with implicit age bias.

The next big challenge is transferring these findings into active strategies to mitigate the bias. We need to develop and implement activities combining attention training, education on the risk of implicit age bias and the differences between stereotype-based and research-based consequences of aging. For instance, Google plans to improve their workforce diversity by educating their employees about gender implicit bias. We are at the beginning of understanding how to guide hidden preferences to support inclusion and diversity. An issue worth committing to, as we all would like to work in more welcoming and open workplace. Wouldn’t we?

About the author:

Malgorzata Kmicinska, Getty ScienceMałgorzata Kmicińska is a PhD candidate in Work and Organizational Psychology at the University of Trento, Italy. Her work is focused around the topic of age diversity and inclusion in the workplace. In the past she has managed coaching sessions on development of customer-centered service for a social cooperative in Italy. Małgorzata’s interests include employees’ wellbeing, individual and team coaching, leadership and talent development, and HR transformation and change management.

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