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Beware of Ageism as Older Workers Look for Employment

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media, October 26, 2009

Healthcare has been one of the few sectors in the overall economy that has seen steady, albeit slowed, job growth throughout the recession. As a result, it seems like more people are applying for jobs in the healthcare sector. The newly opened St. Luke's Lakeside Hospital in The Woodlands, TX, for example, received more than 4,000 applications for 100 jobs.

The applicants were probably attracted to the hospital because it was one of the few places hiring, and because of relative job security, even in lean times.

The popularity of the healthcare sector as a source of employment will probably increase as we emerge from the recession into what so far has been a jobless recovery. Next week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics is expected to report that the nation's unemployment rate has surpassed 10%. People will gravitate to where the jobs are.

An increasing number of older candidates will likely be included in that mix of applicants. That only makes sense. Baby Boomers, the nation's largest demographic, are getting older, and many of them took big hits in their investment portfolios, or lost their jobs in the downsizing, and are now discovering that they have to delay retirement and take jobs that offer significantly less compensation. While older workers can offer a rich and deep pool of experienced and talented applicants, your HR department and hiring managers have to be careful to avoid any interview questions that might be perceived as ageist.

Janine Yancey, president of emTRAiN, the Sacramento, CA-based on-line HR training and compliance consultants, says she's hearing concerns that older workers are not being given equal consideration. "It's appropriate to train managers not to have stereotypical assumptions about older workers, and not to conduct interviews or make hiring decisions that disproportionately impact in a negative way the older candidate," Yancey says.

"Anything relating to dates, that is typically a no-no; asking the date of education, when they graduated. That is typical," Yancey says. "You see that actually printed on application forms all the time."

That alone won't prompt an ageism complaint, or a lawsuit, but Yancey says it could prompt the job applicant to perceive other instances of discrimination—real or imagined—that were based upon age. "They could piece together a few things and say 'Okay, this was motivated by my age. That's why I didn't get hired,'" Yancey says. Employers can address legitimate concerns that you may have with older candidates without making age the issue. For example, you may doubt the commitment of an older applicant who is willing to take a job that pays half of what he or she earned at their last job.

Yancey says that's a legitimate concern for employers. It costs a lot of money to hire and train people, and you don't want someone who will quit with the first better offer. It's fair game to broach the subject. "We are talking an extra 15 minutes in the interview that convinces you why or why not you believe this person when they tell you 'I was making $160,000 in my last job but I'd be happy to make $70,000 here,'" Yancey says. "Express your concerns and have that person explain to you why you should not be concerned."

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