Ageism in Tech Companies is a Real Problem

I’ve taken a couple of fairly aggressive stances in my first 2 posts of 2019. I’ve always had strong opinions about the world of work and I’ve never been fearful of openly sharing them. In late 2018 I turned 40! Mentally I’m as sharp as I’ve ever been. Physically… well… ummm… that’s another story. I grew up playing every sport under the sun; hockey, basketball, snowboarding, baseball and football to name a few. I had more injuries than I could count but I either played through them or quickly bounced back. It’s not like that anymore.

I may not be as nimble as I once was but as I mentioned, my mind is sharp and I’ve had a very interesting career, which has spanned almost 2 full decades — a dozen plus industries, all sized organizations from start-up to multi-national, founded and run my own businesses, invested and advised start-ups, founded and participated in community-based projects (e.g. I Belong, SocialHRCamp, DisruptHR Toronto), spoken at close to 100 conferences and events, mentored up-and-coming HR professionals and helped countless others with their careers. My career progress mirrors that of a pinball machine — highs, lows and everything in between.

Through all of these experiences, one things remains constant. That is I get stronger each and every day. My experiences shape me, my expertise, abilities, marketability and growth. But…

Yes… a big fat but… why have I experienced more discrimination based on my age during the past couple of years than ever before? I am nowhere close to retirement, and frankly, I’m not sure I ever will retire. I love working and there are too many organizations, notably growing tech companies, that need help scaling on the people side of their operations.

Doing HR the right way is not easy. In fact, it’s really hard work. If you want it to be easy just program a bunch of robots to do what you want them to do and you’ll never have to deal with the ebbs and flows of having real people in your organization. It takes experience… real experience in being really good at HR. And for those leaders who think they know HR because you’re an avid reader of the top HR blogs, please take your head out of your ass. Reading and understanding concepts, theories and practices is one thing, but doing it? Yeah… that… strategizing, implementing, delivering, change management and rolling up your sleeves and getting shit done is another. Don’t believe me? Go try it for yourself and call me in 3 months.

In order to get experience and obtain the level of expertise needed to be a senior HR leader you need to spend time doing it. In my case, my career has spanned almost 20 years and my experience is invaluable. I’m still learning and a student of the world of work, and I will be until I stop working. But my experience matters. I’ve done it all. I’ve gone through the trenches and helped organizations succeed, get out of really messy situations and done great work.

So Why Am I Experiencing Ageism?

This is a really great question. Here are some candid thoughts.

First, there’s a false perception that more experience equates to an inability to be agile, modern, flexible, creative, nimble and energetic. I am sure you all know what the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is. If not, check it out. I’m ENFP but the interesting thing is when it comes to “E”. I am 100% extraversion and 0% introversion. So the notion that the older you get the less you “fit” with a culture of flexibility and creativity is b.s.

Second, more experienced talent is too expensive. Well, you get what you pay for. The majority of what leaders of small to medium sized tech companies talk about is related to their people — recruiting, branding, employee experience, culture, recognition, employee engagement and the list goes on. So, if that’s the case then put your money where your mouth is and invest in the right talent in HR.

Third, nothing… and I repeat NOTHING will prepare someone for a difficult situation if you haven’t experienced it before. The more experience you have dealing with difficult situations the better you may be at effectively dealing with it in the future. Confidence comes from practice, experience and activity. Why throw someone inexperienced into something that they’re likely not ready for? Setting someone up to fail right out of the gate is not smart business.

Fourth, I don’t look like them. Many tech companies employ younger people. After all, the milennial group is the largest group in our workforce today. Practically younger talent command lower levels of pay, and because smaller tech companies tend to be more cost conscious than large multi-nationals it makes sense that their workforces are generally younger. But, you still need to employ the market if you want to succeed in business, especially in Canada. Just because I have a few grey hairs doesn’t mean I can’t work effectively with someone 15 years younger than me. Any belief to the contrary is nothing short of ridiculous.

Fifth, the ability for me to work a lot, and hard, is drastically reduced. I have a family which requires me to devote time away to things other than work. But I work my butt off and the optics of “butt in chair” is dead anyway. Work flexibility rules the day, and regardless of age, we all need it. Working more hours doesn’t mean someone is producing better results. Regardless, there’s no connection between working hard and your age so get over it.

I just identified 5 things that immediately come to mind when thinking about why I have personally experienced ageism, but there are many more. However you slice and dice this, I will say that these reasons, or excuses, are nothing short of ridiculous bullshit. There’s absolutely zero truth and validity to any of them. For those leaders who have developed false assumptions and perceptions about the relationship between age and success at work should really think hard about it. Diversity and inclusion is smart business. This includes employing people within all work groups — millennial, gen x, baby boomer, etc…

For all you leaders out there, the next time you’re talking to someone with a few grey hairs, like me, shift your mindset from “he’s too old and won’t fit in our culture” to, “he has awesome experience — how can he contribute and value to what we already have”. Give this a shot and let me know how it goes.

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