Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Age Discrimination – Stanley Fisher, et al

Stanley Fisher is the president of the Bank of Israel. He has held this position for 6 years, encompassing a very difficult global financial period. Israel has a small domestic economy, and is heavily dependent upon exports as well as tourism – so when the world economy tanks, Israel is very directly impacted. Most Israeli experts seem to agree (and it is very rare to find economists that agree, let alone Jewish economists ;>) that Israel has weathered this economic period quite well, and the international community seems to concur in general. Although Stanley Fisher is not solely responsible, clearly he has a strong impact on Israel’s current enviable economic situation.

Recently the position of Head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) became available, and Stanley Fisher, with his impeccable credentials, was interested in being considered for this post. Very early in the process, he was dismissed as a candidate because he was too old (the maximum age is 65 and he is 67).

I have a friend who is a doctor in Israel. At the hospital where he works, he will have to retire well before the age of 70. His father is a doctor in the US and is still working each day at a hospital – he is 85 years old!

At least in the case of Stanley Fisher, we can assume that not being allowed to head the IMF will not cause him financial hardship (after all, he continues to hold an excellent job), something not true for everyone that approaches retirement age. As baby boomers advance in age, with looming high health costs and less than expected savings, the question of when to stop working becomes more difficult. At least in Israel, with basic universal health coverage, these costs are less of a factor in this decision.

For most people seeking work though, official retirement age is not the main roadblock, rather the difficulties in getting a job while still at pre-retirement age. Employers have a profile of their ideal employee, and age range is often (sometimes unconsciously) part of this vision. If the job seeker falls outside that range, the person reviewing the CVs may well stop reading when they get to the birthdate entry.

From the legal perspective, things in Israel are clear. It is not allowed to make a negative hiring decision based upon age. However, as with all things in Israel, there is the law and there is the way that it is implemented. For instance, I was living in Israel for many years before I understood that the traffic laws in Israel and the US are very similar – the difference is only in the enforcement. However, this enforcement difference, meaning that the traffic laws in Israel are enforced much less than they are in the US, leads to an outcome where drivers in Israel don’t fear penalties and drive recklessly. Most drivers simply don’t appear to take the law into account when driving.

Age and job seeking is quite similar. It is standard for a job seeker to include their age/birthdate on their CV in Israel. If age is not supposed to be a factor, why would a job seeker do this? The answer is clear - because potential employers expect it. The fear, and justifiably so, is that if a person submits a CV without their age listed, this raises red flags to those reading it – essentially inducing the question “what is this candidate hiding?”. If the person is particularly relevant, the company may contact them and ask them some questions, including age, but in many other cases the job seeker will simply be eliminated from contention. Of course, not all companies operate this way, but it is a calculated risk to take such a chance. Most people that are “young” simply put their age, as it would generally be considered a positive to perspective employers; job seekers that are in their 60s (or 50s [or 40s]) must constantly decide what to do.

In my work at Israemploy, I am in touch with many companies in Israel seeking employees. I always try to understand what the profile is of the candidates they seek, and age often plays a role. Although companies are never going to make a straight statement that violates the law, it is possible to learn a lot from what they do say.

Each company and hiring manager’s philosophy is different. Some will state that age is not relevant, a factor absolutely unrelated to the recruitment decision (from my experience, this is a rare statement to hear, and even more rare when it is true).

Generally most job seekers assume they come across age limitations only at the higher end of the working-age spectrum, but in fact there can be lower age limits as well. Some companies have had bad experiences with young employees, those that may lack responsibility/stability. In this case, they prefer workers above a certain arbitrary age, for instance 25 or even 30. Other companies have a work-force with an average age of 20s, and have found that introducing someone significantly older than this is a mismatch.

Nothing is absolute, age preferences are flexible, and can become relaxed based upon the urgency of filling an opening and/or the expected difficulty of identifying a candidate that meets the requirements. If a company needs to find an employee quickly, then their optimum age profile becomes elastic. And for a company that is seeking a hard-to-find person, such as a Swedish speaker, age issues become less critical by necessity.

It would be wonderful if it was possible to educate employers to eliminate or at least reduce their false prejudices, whether they are related to age, gender, race, religious affiliation… Especially in the case of not considering “older” employers, it is not difficult to create a list of the advantages for an employer of hiring a mature worker, including:

• No young children at home that require attention, meaning availability for longer work hours
• No military obligations for men, no pregnancy leaves for women, translating to more days available to work
• More experience, higher capability to do the job [this I have found to be a two-edged sword in the eyes of employers, as often they tell me that they prefer a person without too much experience, as those with long work histories are many times set in their ways, and not open to learning/considering a new way of doing things]

The truth is, though, that attempting to have a rational discussion about such issues typically doesn’t help if the preconceived notion itself is not based in logic. Job seekers tell me that there should be more efforts made by the government at enforcing the law, but it is unclear whether this would lead to an improvement “on the ground”.

In the short-term, I tend to believe that job seekers that are outside the typical employer ideal profile range would be better off investing their resources in identifying and pursuing opportunities that are more suitable. Of course this is easier said than done, but focusing on smaller companies that don’t have an existing large workforce of young employees, or speaking with others to find companies that already do employ “older” workers, or looking for companies that market their product/services to the greying population – all of these may help you uncover new possibilities.

And please remember, as you do integrate into the Israeli work force and arrive to a position where you impact hiring decisions, remember when you were looking for a job and the difficulties that you encountered, something that is bound to make a cumulative positive impact on the overall Israeli recruitment process.

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