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.
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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