How to avoid ageism in your job posts

Research like this piece from Harvard Business Review argues that a diverse workforce drives innovation and market growth. Diversity comes in many forms: gender, race, and socioeconomic background, to name a few. How can your tech startup encourage workforce diversity in the form of age?

The tech industry is often stereotyped as young. When we think of a bustling tech startup, visuals of 20-something nerds playing ping pong with the paddle in one hand and a beer in the other often come to mind. And there is some truth to that — MarketWatch cited both a PayScale study that found seven of the 18 largest tech companies had a median employee age of 30 or younger as well as a Visier study that found the average age of a tech manager is 42, compared to 47 for a non-tech manager.

We are not here to say that tech companies shouldn’t be recruiting young, bright minds. But when you are working to build a team for your growing startup, there is an untapped opportunity in building teams across a wider range of ages. A 2013 study at North Carolina State University found that programmers’ skills improve over time, and that older programmers receive higher performance ratings — even when it comes to new technologies. That is to say, as a Talent Acquisition pro, it is worth your while to actively recruit candidates not just in their 20s, but also in their 30s, 40s, and beyond. But how?

Many tech startup job posts boast their young workforce. This, alongside related messages that job posts send both explicitly and implicitly, tends to alienate more seasoned candidates and discourage them from applying. As a Director of Talent Acquisition, part of your job is to write up high quality, appropriately-targeted job posts that will attract the best people.

To help you diversify the age range of your team and cast your candidate-sourcing net over a wider audience, I’ve put together a list of common mistakes I saw in job posts in order to help you and your team avoid them:

1. Avoid experience maximums or upper limits. 

When you write in a job post that you are looking for candidates with 3–5 years of experience, you might mean that you are looking for a person who has approximately 3–5 years of experience in the role for which you’re hiring. But job seekers might read this to mean that you only willing to consider people who have been in the workforce for a total of 3–5 years — in other words, that you are only looking for recent college graduates in their 20s.

This nuance inadvertently alienates career changers, and people over 30 who built expertise in the relevant field after starting their careers elsewhere. By avoiding upper limits on the desired years of experience, you broaden your ability to bring in people who don’t just have experience in your target field, but also bring rich and diverse backgrounds that younger candidates don’t.

2. Avoid “required” degrees or majors. 

Any job — even technical ones — entails a mix of knowledge, skills, and motivations.

Consider how your job post expresses what knowledge, skills, and motivations you are looking for in a candidate. When you list a certain degree, say computer science, as “required” for an engineering, data science, or product management role, you alienate potentially relevant candidates who — for various reasons — did not major in that specific field.

Just a few of the people you could miss out on: engineers who completed bootcamps, product managers who taught themselves to code, or experienced engineering managers who graduated from college before computer science was as popular a major as it is now.

A more effective approach is to use the term “or equivalent” next to a technical degree or major to more broadly represent the knowledge you expect from your target candidates. By adopting this approach, you’d put yourself in the same breath as leading-edge companies like Google and Apple, which CNBC includes as 2 of 14 companies that no longer require employees to have a college degree

3. Avoid immaturity. 

We agree that you should feel free to send a message that your company is fun, that you strive for a workplace that feels like a home, and that prospective employees would be coming to a place where people want to work every day. But if you overdo the language, perhaps you alienate parents who need to leave at 6 or a candidate in the 40+ age range who just decides that this company’s culture wouldn’t be a good fit.

You can still convey the message that your company is an exciting place to work by using words like “dynamic” or “energetic”, but you may want to eliminate offending lingo like ninjas, wizards, and rockstars. Ideally, you can run posts by your marketing pros or on a diverse group of prospective employees to see what thoughts and feelings your job post evokes with each of them.

Ultimately, the most important rule of thumb is to be mindful of how your job posts may be perceived by different groups of people. Remember, not everyone reading your post learned like you or thinks like you — and that diversity of thought is exactly what contributes to the healthiest possible culture.
If you want your company to reach its full potential, you need to recruit people old and young, with a diversity of backgrounds, united by shared values and a common mission.
Cover image: Shutterstock

This article first appeared on the Layoff-Aid blog on 12 December 2018.

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2 Responses to “How to avoid ageism in your job posts”

  1. Leslie Breackell

    I think the issue is less about “avoiding ageism in your job posts” and more about managing the strong unconscious bias for ageism in all your recruiters. Having been on the receiving end of comments like “Your salary expectations are too high” or “You’re too experienced for the role” (all hidden meanings for – “You’re too old”). That of course is if you even get a response at all without having to hide half of your work experience from your CV!

    • Hi Leslie, I agree that managing unconscious bias is a difficult but worthwhile endeavor. As a sneak peak, a forthcoming post on the Layoff-Aid blog will likely dig in further to these kinds of issues… and what firms can do better. Sign up for our email list to be kept in the loop as the post goes live! Would love your feedback!


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