Through my work with organizations like MMANC and ICMA, I have the opportunity to meet like-minded peers and compare our experiences working for local government. Last month, I was speaking to someone who knew that I work in human resources and she wanted my thoughts on how to handle a particular situation. We’ll call this person “Daenerys” for the sake of anonymity.
“We’re hiring someone older”
Daenerys, a Millennial in her early 30s, had a job interview for a mid-manager position. She felt like she had rocked it – she was confident, charismatic, and was able to answer the panel’s questions with ease. A few days later she got a call from the hiring manager. “I’m sorry,” the manager said, “I’m going with my gut and hiring another candidate. The other candidate is older so he will be able to get along better with the older employee that this position frequently interacts with.” Daenerys thanked him for the opportunity and hung up the phone. Her question to me was: is it legal to discriminate against a younger candidate based on age?
Age Discrimination Laws
If Daenerys was in her early 50s and the hiring manager rejected her for a younger candidate simply because of her age, she could sue. The federal Age Discrimination Employment Act, or ADEA, prohibits discrimination of any employee, age 40 or above, in regards to compensation, conditions or terms of employment, and privileges because of the employee’s age. That being said, “failure to hire” cases are notoriously hard to file and even harder to prove. Unless Daenerys taped the phone call, which is illegal in California without permission of the other party, how could she ever prove she was rejected because of her age? While Federal law says it’s wrong to fail to hire older employees because of age, the laws in California offer no such protection to individuals under 40.
Millennials and Reverse Age Discrimination
As society continues to create stereotypes surrounding the Millennial generation (those born between 1980 and the early 2000s), younger leaders are finding it difficult to gain positions of authority. We’ve all seen headlines like these:
Millennials: How to Stop Them from Job Hunting (Fortune.com)
Why the Millennials in Your Office Hate Their Jobs (NYPost.com)
Why Millennials Can’t Grow Up (Slate.com)
Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation (Time.com)
Let me save you the trouble of reading those articles. They all say the same thing: Millennials are lazy, demanding, overindulged, impatient, self-absorbed, overly-dependent, unreliable, etc. If an HR manager caught you labeling workers over 50 that way, she would haul you aside for a chat on age discrimination. If those headlines were about women, or people of color, there is no way the national press would run the article. But when we’re talking about those under 38, nobody bats an eye.
Stereotypes Have Real Effects
It’s becoming a common view that Millennials require special attention and managers need to be trained to deal with them. How many well-meaning managers are out there, eagerly reading those articles, in hopes of becoming better managers? How can the information contained in those articles not be dampening the appetite for hiring younger people? Pervasive negative stereotypes surrounding younger employees will influence hiring decisions, even if on a subconscious level.
Stereotyping based on race, gender, religion and/or nationality is not acceptable in local government, and it shouldn’t be acceptable to judge a group of people whose common characteristic is a 20-year wide age bracket. Yes, some Millennials are still in high school, but others, like Daenerys, are a decade into their professional careers. As is true with any form of negative stereotyping, the label “Millennial” leaves no room for recognizing the uniqueness of individuals in that population.
This should be of grave concern for local government leaders because vacancies created by the continuing wave of retirements at the executive level requires younger employees to be experienced enough to fill those vacancies. If they are being passed over for management positions because of their perceived flaws, how are they ever going to gain the experience needed to shape and manage our communities?
So What Is The Solution?
Here’s where I tell you I don’t have one. It’s unlawful to reject a candidate because they are over 40, but it’s perfectly okay to pass someone over because they dress funny, or their hair is the wrong color, or they have a piercing, or they are generally unattractive, or because they look like the hiring manager’s ex. And then there is all the illegal discrimination that happens behind the scenes. In other words, young leaders aren’t the only ones being discriminated against. There are a lot of us in the same boat. If you have experienced a similar issue, I’ll offer you the same advice that I gave Daenerys: don’t let this slow you down. By focusing on what you can uniquely offer the organization, and bringing that same level of confidence and charisma to every interview, the right agency will look beyond the label and see you as the competent, driven leader that you are.