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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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Wakjob2
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Wakjob2,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/8/2013 | 5:57:28 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination Or Employee Inertia?
True. When I was 30 I was in top shape and got any tech job I wanted. Now I am 44 and not so good-looking and no one will hire me. Despite having been a developer at Apple, Sony, and Hitachi. If you're not cool, hip, and attractive today, forget getting a job. We live in a childish superficial society.
Wakjob2
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Wakjob2,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/8/2013 | 5:56:02 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination Or Employee Inertia?
It's all about elites and moron managers feeling threatened by very experienced older smart workers. That is why they want to get rid of us.
Wakjob2
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Wakjob2,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/8/2013 | 5:55:16 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination Or Employee Inertia?
Hate to tell you, you just wasted a lot of time in college. That degree is worthless. Unemployment among college grads is 50% and there are a whole lot of them out there a whole lot younger than you. You'll never get a job in tech especially if you have no experience. My advice is get a tech management job at your age. The IT industry is known the world over for age discrimination.
Wakjob2
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Wakjob2,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/8/2013 | 5:53:07 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination Or Employee Inertia?
Well in that case, using the same logic, it's time older workers move up and replace CEOs. Why they hell do CEOs get paid $40 million if the goal is maximizing Korporate Profits? I am an engineer with 20 years' experience AND a degree in Business Admin. Why am I not replacing a $40 million CEO and make $250K instead? After all, cutting costs and maximizing shareholder value, right? I could do any CEO's job and do it better than 90% of them.

Oh wait, that would mean we would have apply the same cost-cutting logic to overpaid elitist CEOs.

This isn't about cost cutting - it's about elites feeling that their prestige is threatened by star workers.
MyW0r1d
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MyW0r1d,
User Rank: Strategist
3/8/2013 | 3:26:51 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination Or Employee Inertia?
The part Jonathan left out, which would be important, is if the company offered to pay for the retraining of the employee due to the new system they wanted. If the retraining was to be assumed by the aging employee and it was a niche or not a marketable skill set, then the company should have assumed the cost to retrain staff and the employee justified on not assuming the cost personally. In this case, if the employee still refused having the retraining costs assumed, then termination was absolutely justified. Unfortunately, he left out this critical piece which would have separated just cause from an all too familiar and largely indefensible HR game for trimming labor costs.
MyW0r1d
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MyW0r1d,
User Rank: Strategist
3/8/2013 | 3:17:08 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination Or Employee Inertia?
What watchdog? Are you aware of the existance of an IT union such as many other trades or professions have for collective bargaining? Honestly, many of the unions I deal with today try to or have stepped beyond their charter of protecting the interests of the employee to stifle company growth and flexibility on the operational and strategic level.
NorthWoods
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NorthWoods,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/8/2013 | 3:10:25 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination Or Employee Inertia?
BEE in 1969, MSEE in 1981, MS Software Engineering in 2001, Certified Enterprise Architect in 2005, lead technical engineer that won a $1.8B DoD contract in 2003, and laid off senior staff computer systems architect in 2010 at the age of 62 along with a large number of other older workers. Our management wasn't knowledgeable enough to see the value of the individual but rather was focussed on stereotyping employees. I started a start-up company and am trying to develop a medical diagnostic software product using general DoD technologies that haven't yet transitioned to the medical field. I think that age discrimination is alive and well and caused by management ignorance of employee value.
markdavidgraybill
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markdavidgraybill,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/7/2013 | 10:11:55 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination Or Employee Inertia?
This might be a related topic:

http://www.aboutleaders.com/?P...
markdavidgraybill
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markdavidgraybill,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/7/2013 | 10:10:46 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination Or Employee Inertia?
You have a point. Leaders should be smart not impetuous, and understand their own biases. Leaders should avoid the execute now, clean up later simply so they come across as confident and on the ball. On the flip side, we can learn to override being at the wrong end of discrimination.

However, your point is lost in the reality that when actual discrimination exists, it is because we are not acting as evolved as we supposedly are. Boo hoo the world isn't fair because people are animals shouldn't be closure.
markdavidgraybill
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markdavidgraybill,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/7/2013 | 10:04:24 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination Or Employee Inertia?
There was an article about age discrimination in Silicon Valley. A CEO type found he had to make himself look younger (such as shaving off his gray hair). As soon as he did this he landed a CEO job.

http://www.reuters.com/article...
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