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3/4/2013
01:06 PM
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IT Age Discrimination Or Employee Inertia?

There is bona fide ageism and there is failure to learn new skills in a constantly changing field. Let's not confuse the two.

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A reader wrote me last week about my column "4 IT Leadership Failures That Make Employees Leave," pointing to the practice of driving away graying employees as yet another leadership failure at IT organizations. "This is supposedly being done because senior IT staff are not keeping up, when it is actually being done as cost control," the reader wrote.

Not to be harsh, but we need to be clearer about what's happening.

I agree 100% that driving away senior, experienced personnel is just bad business. But there's a big difference between getting rid of people because they're old and shedding people who aren't cutting it. To put a finer point on the matter: Thoughtful cost control doesn't equate to age discrimination.

You often get what you pay for. But as we know in the innovation game, sometimes you can pay less because of market or business developments or because of new, less expensive processes. So the question gets reframed: Can you spend less and get the same quality of service? If you can, you have no choice but to make changes.

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We see this in our IT environments all the time. For example, we got rid of expensive circuit-switched phone calling in favor of less expensive IP-based services. If there's a staffing equivalent in your organization, well, that's regrettable, and we hope that your business handles the matter in a way that preserves the employee's dignity and provides some transition time. But fundamentally, you must part ways.

Let's also consider the argument that companies are getting rid of older employees under the guise of competency issues. Let's all agree that plenty of senior IT pros are eminently competent. Looking to another field, my dad, in his 80s, is still practicing medicine. Lest you say that his patients are in danger, I'll point out that he once again passed his medical boards recently. And although medicine might not be moving at the breakneck speed of IT, when my dad started practicing in the 1960s, it was leeches and bloodletting compared to the sophistication of today. He has surely had to keep up. I've known his equivalent on the IT front lines as well.

But a fair number of senior IT pros rest on their laurels, not because of their age, but because of inertia. I once told an employee that we were getting rid of a certain type of technology, his specialty, in a few years and that it was time for him to start preparing for the transition. We wrote as much into his goal plan, but he didn't avail himself of the training opportunities. A year went by, and we had the same conversation and again wrote it into his goal plan. Nothing. The tech transition happened as planned, the employee wasn't ready, and it was time to have a difficult conversation about parting ways. Had I not documented our expectation, I could have been accused of ageism. My point: Don't confuse ageism with accountability.

All of the above points assume a competent, reasonable leadership team, when we all know there are plenty of dysfunctional ones out there. If all you're hanging on to is the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, best of luck. It's a 10,000-word document that's incomprehensible by the common man. According to two of my trusted legal and HR colleagues, it does not prohibit organizations from laying off "the expensive people." Typically, if the layoffs have a well articulated, plausible reason and don't affect older people exclusively, it will be hard to prove age discrimination.

My question to you: If your employer is engaged in true age discrimination, are you better off taking it to court or finding another, more ethical company that will value your experience and talents? My advice: Leave the question of ageism to the class-action lawyers. If you've truly had a rich career with many accomplishments, and you've kept your skill set sharp, there's more work to be had and done. Leave the idiot employers behind and find it.

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vbierschwale
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vbierschwale,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/6/2013 | 5:33:05 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination Or Employee Inertia?
I couldn't agree with you more and I'm even pushing a petition to end age discrimination in the software industry.

https://petitions.whitehouse.g...

The problem is, many firms are not even interested in interviewing people that are well qualified and can bring decades of experience to the table as in the case of a EE that I recently featured at Keep America At Work.

I myself am teaching myself PHP/MySQL so that I can maintain KAAW and use them to build Buried Where in the coming months.

All of this stuff can be done on a person's off time, but it is much easier to learn when you're not wondering where your next penny is coming from.

If we have people that can no longer cut the mustard, let's do like we always did and find them a position that they are better suited for.

But to destroy the sovereign state of your own country like we are doing is the absolute worst thing that we could be doing.
TreeInMyCube
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TreeInMyCube,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/6/2013 | 5:51:48 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination Or Employee Inertia?
Thanks for your candor, and your precision in describing the underlying issues. A universal truth is that older IT pros want to remain gainfully employed, and to be recognized for their talents and contributions. You've shined the spotlight on a key aspect of those people (which include me, who has past 50) -- what are we willing to do, to stay employed and relevant? Are there formal training courses or programs, vs. simply taking on a new role and getting OJT? Are the managers given the latitude to spend money to train vetereans in a new skill, or are those managers encouraged to recruit a contractor or outsourcer who already has the skill? Does the performance appraisal system penalize someone for being new in a role, as would need to happen in the course of re-training?
I'm sorry to read your story of a person who was given a clear signal (adapt or die), and who chose not to adapt. After beating the drum of "keep learning new skills" for more than 15 years across our industry, I'm surprised at how people still refuse to hear it.
DDURBIN1
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DDURBIN1,
User Rank: Ninja
3/6/2013 | 6:21:40 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination Or Employee Inertia?
In the late nineties IBM began laying off most all employees over 50. These employees filed a class action suit against IBM that went to the US Supreme Court. IBM won. According to the court, as long as all 50 year olds at IBM were treated the same it was not age discrimination. So much for the Age Discrimination Act of 1967 as it's 10,000 pages of wasted paper.

As mid-sized corporations and larger are providing their own healthcare coverage (self-insuring employees) the older employee bares more risk and cost to the company. Add to the fact younger people work for less, I know of very few people that actually retire out of the IT department. Between 1999 to 2005 over 3 million IT workers over the age of 50 lost their jobs while at the same time the H1-B visa maxes out every year.
DDURBIN1
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DDURBIN1,
User Rank: Ninja
3/6/2013 | 6:43:11 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination Or Employee Inertia?
Its been my experience most publicly traded companies prefer to not offer career transitioning skill training for IT workers. Like a capital asset past its usefullness its cheaper to disgard and replace. I've worked at several companies were the technology was being moved from IBM mainframes running IMS database to HP Unix machines running Oracle. All of the mainframe personnel were replaced including DBAs and programmers, first with consultants then with new hires.
I give
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I give,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/6/2013 | 6:58:52 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination Or Employee Inertia?
The same perspective applies to all fields of endeavor where and employer pays an employee for services rendered. The more value you provide the more compensation you should be able to procure, within a competitive marketplace for your skills. Whether you are 25 or 65 years of age, you are not being paid according to the year you were born, what you did 15 years ago, nor what you believe you are worth. If an employer wants to pay you a premium over your current value based on the potential the employer is hoping you meet 5 years from now, the employer is free to do so. If you feel you have more potential now or in the foreseeable future, it is up to you and your employer to reach an agreement about how that effects your current pay. There are as many kids who think they are worth more than their employer does, as there are old folks who think the same thing.
mattmc
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mattmc,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/6/2013 | 7:00:13 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination Or Employee Inertia?
" Thoughtful cost control doesn't equate to age discrimination. " What world do you live in you freaking company man - management boy! Thoughtful cost control. So it's ok to pay an increasing pay to this, how did you put it, "Employee that does not keep up", to the point that the employee becomes a "cost control" issue. And the reason they are let go is because they don't keep up. Geez I cannot stand people like this boxer clown who wrote this article. How dare you write this. I am personally offended. You can tell this clown has never been laid off do to a workforce reduction.

It is not age discrimination - but in a sense it is. The employee was good enough to get hired, stay employed and escalate their pay to a point where MANAGEMENT finds it cheaper to higher a new grad. DUH!! No age discrimination - but don't shovel this crap about not keeping up. IT'S ALL ABOUT MONEY. Nothing else. Are there exceptions to this rule. Sure. I've worked with lazy people - who hasn't. And workforce reductions a great opportunity for companies to get rid of lazy employees. Of course worthless management people, like the author of this article, are seldom affected. They are the last.

This link should get posted at every Unemployment resource web site. This clown would get hunted down. TreeInMyCube must work for him too.
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
3/6/2013 | 7:23:53 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination Or Employee Inertia?
Jonathan, what advice would you give older IT pros who have kept their skills up to date, got laid off because they were expensive, are now job hunting -- and feel like they are not getting the right interviews/call backs due to age? It is hard if not impossible to hide age from recruiters.This might be a whole other column but it is an important follow up.

If you can't get through the door for the interview, you can't show off your up to date skills.

Laurianne McLaughlin
InformationWeek
pduffy82001
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pduffy82001,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/6/2013 | 7:28:57 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination Or Employee Inertia?
I think treating people like "equipment" - old circuit switching technology - is a big mistake and leads me into my soapbox as to when Personnel Departments became "Human Resource" departments. It was when staff ceased to be treated as people and became resources to be dumped when no longer needed, like an old Circuit Switch. Some enlightened companies see using the experience of older staff as invaluable. Unfortunately in the US healthcare costs come into it so if the average age of the workforce is higher then healthcare costs are also higher - not an issue in many other countries.
SAuge
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SAuge,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/6/2013 | 7:34:42 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination Or Employee Inertia?
"If you've truly had a rich career with many accomplishments, and you've kept your skill set sharp, there's more work to be had and done. Leave the idiot employers behind and find it. "

Yea, move to India.
Melanie Rodier
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Melanie Rodier,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/6/2013 | 10:10:59 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination Or Employee Inertia?
"If your employer is engaged in true age discrimination," they should be held accountable, by someone, or some watchdog. Plus, I agree with Laurianne. If there are older IT pros who have kept their skills up to date, but simply got laid off because they were expensive, it might not be so easy for them to get past the resume' stage when they job hunt. And they might be jobless and with few prospects at a pre-retirement age. Should everyone just let it go?
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