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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.

[ Computer programming is the answer to joblessness, says organization. Read Urges Students To Embrace Programming. ]

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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User Rank: Apprentice
3/7/2013 | 12:04:37 AM
re: IT Age Discrimination Or Employee Inertia?
Jonathan's column on how he worked the system to get rid of an older employee that he wanted fired is absolutely inspiring. So inspiring that it has motivated me to create value by framing some salient questions:

1. Can any readers in North Carolina tell us which city government Jonathan works for?

2. Can said readers access publicly available information and tell us what Jonathan is paid?

3. Is there a social-media-adept, younger, more dynamic, more credentialed CIO candidate out there who might Jonathan's job for less money and leaner benefits?

4. Could this theoretical candidate be brought in before Jonathan is fully vested in his pension, thereby enriching his taxpayers/stakeholders?

Let your conscience be Jonathan's guide.....
User Rank: Apprentice
3/7/2013 | 12:30:44 AM
re: IT Age Discrimination Or Employee Inertia?
Your comment "Can you spend less and get the same quality of service? If you can, you have no choice but to make changes" is a bit naive.

After more than 30 years and consulting at over 36 organizations, I have seen a fair share of what goes on in the trenches. When bottom line is salient to leaders, such a focus can skew perceptions and can infuse justifications that donG«÷t exist. It is in our nature to do so and once in power, stereotyping tendencies tend to increase. This is an issue for several reasons.

Junior technical types are far more likely to make rash technical decisions because they lack the experience seniors have that warrants caution, and besides, the fun is in the execution not decision process. Management types like execution and can see seniors as moving slow. IG«÷ve witnessed confident juniors spewing remarkably logically-sounding justification for technical decisions resisted by seniors that was all bull. They find out in the end but since few companies have sufficient individual and project performance metrics that would reveal this disparity, they have no way of knowing what is really going on.

Getting back to the bottom line salience, IG«÷ll share one of my experiences that is an example of the kind of stupidity that can occur in leadership. It was a company that sold silicon-wafer inspection equipment and services to customize the software. Since I was looking to get out of consulting I was interested in this gig because it was a contract-to-hire offer. I stepped up everything - including refining a mathematical formula I used for forecasting tasks.

Two projects I revealed my technical and project management acumen that resulted in saving $1.2M they were going to lose for that quarter - $500K would never have been signed. So they made their quarterly projection and the execs were happy.

The difference in senior salaries and new hires was about $50K per year. That was enough where the VP of engineering, wanting to cut costs, decided to lay off their most senior engineers - and renege the offer to hire me. He admitted to me that I did very well, but he was looking for G«£more bang for the buckG«•. Before I left he had hired H-1B visa engineers to replace those who were laid off.

It wasnG«÷t long before missing enough quarterly projections dropped their stock below the radar and they had to sell. That VP was fired but it was a small company and was too late.
User Rank: Apprentice
3/7/2013 | 2:43:26 AM
re: IT Age Discrimination Or Employee Inertia?
I have 11 years of Objective-C (hottest language right now), 13 apps in the App Store, iOS, Xcode, 20 years' Mac programming experience, former Apple, Sony, and Hitachi employee. Oh and I worked on PlayStation at Sony.

If that isn't relevant, then I don't know what is.

Where is my job Mr. Feldman?

Out of date skills or jealous foreign parasite races who want to take over things Americans created?
User Rank: Apprentice
3/7/2013 | 2:48:06 AM
re: IT Age Discrimination Or Employee Inertia?
What about all these useless old ineffective farts we have running Congress with a 9% approval rating. We're paying these dinosaurs $175K a year to wreck our country. Why aren't we getting rid of them, cutting all their salaries in 1/2 and getting some energetic young blood in there to run the place right.

Dinos like Reid, Pelosi, Feinstein, Schumer, Liberman, and the rest. These old hacks are killing us.

Why is only IT being targeted? Why doesn't this same efficiency apply to pols, lawyers, and all CEOs?

Me thinks the dinos are jealous of the hip IT people who out produce, out earn, and out-prestige them.

Their solution? Flood the industry with cheap crappy labor from India in order to destroy the whole industry.

Then the dino-elites can get their prestige back.
Stephane Parent
Stephane Parent,
User Rank: Moderator
3/7/2013 | 12:23:53 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination Or Employee Inertia?
When I was laid off with almost thirty years of IT experience, it was impossible to find an employer who would hire me at the salary I had left.

As a new empty-nester, with lowered expenses, I did however have the flexibility of reducing my salary expectations. My current employer got an experienced IT worker at a reasonable price.

I suspect younger employees would have a harder time reducing their expectations as their value increase.
User Rank: Strategist
3/7/2013 | 2:01:01 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination Or Employee Inertia?
He'll change his tune when it happens to him. And it will. And to those who think current technological competence is a talisman that will prevent human obsolescence are simply wrong. IT is all about youth, both the image and fact. Steady wisdom and thoughtful judgement simply have no place on the playing field. (nor does Gray hair!)

A tech career is like a football career writ in slow motion. The thing is, we are just now starting to realize it in the IT industry. The athlete knows his career is only going to last 5 - 10 years. In IT, you get 20 - 30 years, depending on when you start. The secret is to be ready for it just like the smarter athletes. So while he is playing, the smart athlete knows he needs to divert some of that money for a post retirement life.

Save for retirement like your goal is to retire at 50. That way, when it DOES happen to you at age 55 or 60, you are ready. An IT career pays a bit more than other careers. Spend a little less, and save a little more. I did, and now I'm not suffering after my "incident" like so many others.

To the younger guys, I say, look at the oldest guy in your shop. Keep an eye on his fate. That is your fate, and you simply CAN NOT avoid it.
Tech Guy
Tech Guy,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/7/2013 | 2:25:54 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination Or Employee Inertia?
Graduated in 2011 with a Bachelor's Degree in Computer Science specializing in Computer Information Systems and am still seeking employment! I have had a couple of part time jobs that closed due to a bad economy and have been working independently on projects in order to make ends meet, but how does someone who just turned 50 with a college degree and a few years of experience break into the Tech Industry?
User Rank: Apprentice
3/7/2013 | 5:32:49 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination Or Employee Inertia?
The article is an oversimplification of a very complex issue. Here's a better simplification: bottom line is that your company probably doesn't care what you did for them five years ago or five minutes ago. Companies today care mostly about meeting the short term objectives laid out by whoever their owners are. The bigger the company, the less they'll care about or will even consider your personal contributions. If you fit the mold of someone who should be cut (we need to save money, we need to do it with the smallest possible loss of headcount, so we'll do it by cutting expensive workers - period), then you'll be cut.

Smart older workers should not count on the loyalty of anyone around them. It doesn't exist. You should have your eye on the next thing you want to do, and be ready to pull the trigger at any time. If your company is hurting - if their business is weak, if their plan for success doesn't make sense to you and isn't likely to hing on you, you should be looking to leave it. Your company is a loser, and you owe it nothing - because when push comes to shove, that's how the company will view you. Everyone is infinitely replaceable.

Always be looking, always have a plan, always think about how you could make your life better or at least as comfortable without your current job. You may never need to pull that trigger, but if you do - you'll be very happy you were ready.

Sure, this is a cynical view, but it's about self preservation. No one, and I mean no one will look out for you but you. Count on it. Take it to heart, and you'll fair much better than those who believe that if they they do well by their company the company will do well by them. That's only true up until the moment it isn't.

If you're skill set won't land you a new job, figure out how to update it while you have a job. If you aren't aware of three or four places where you could go if you had to, figure it out. Think about it, have a plan, be prepared. Someone somewhere will probably view you as this article suggests: "we got rid of expensive circuit-switched phone calling in favor of less expensive IP-based services". Whether it's true or not, if you know yourself to be in a high paid job at a weak company, someone somewhere sometime will think about laying you off, because there is always a lower cost option - no matter how good you think you are. In every layoff good people get cut along with bad people.

It happens all the time. Own it, understand it, plan for it. And if you can find yourself a way into a better company, take it. Loyalty doesn't exist - period.
Melanie Rodier
Melanie Rodier,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/7/2013 | 7:08:27 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination Or Employee Inertia?
I would have thought it would be age discrimination as long as the 50-year-olds were not treated the same way as 25-year-olds, but I'm not a lawyer. Anyway, the prospects for older employees will probably soon be the same in other industries too, as companies seek more ways to cut costs. Companies need more soldiers than upper management, particularly given tight budgets. If young employees - who are willing to work for much lower pay - have the same skills as older employees who cost a lot more, employers will continue to hire young workers and lay off older ones, however unfair that may be. Older employees need to continue to diversify their skill sets and probably be more open-minded about less conventional career paths, particularly once they hit 50.
User Rank: Apprentice
3/7/2013 | 7:08:46 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination Or Employee Inertia?
I think that many companies view younger workers as malleable, able to be trained to work "the Intel way" and lacking loyalty to a previous employer. More senior people may simply be seen as having baggage. Not saying it's fair, but I have a friend who regularly hires engineering technicians and would always rather get someone just out of school and train them on company processes. Not saying it's right or fair, but it's reality.
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