Experts: Ageism is rising in the workplace

Carla Smith and her attorney Artur Davis pose for a portrait on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023. Smith, a former director of IT for the City of Atlanta is suing because believes she was unfairly fired based on age. (Natrice Miller/ Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Carla Smith and her attorney Artur Davis pose for a portrait on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023. Smith, a former director of IT for the City of Atlanta is suing because believes she was unfairly fired based on age. (Natrice Miller/ Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

If age 50 is the new 30, that’s not the case in corporate America, according to experts who say ageism is preventing older workers from advancing at the office or landing new jobs elsewhere.

Former city of Atlanta employee Carla Smith said she witnessed middle-aged workers being fired by the city before she was terminated for refusing to fire a 57-year-old member of her Information Technology team.

Smith, 53, was hired to lead the city department in 2019, then fired in August.

Smith and the five other former employees had no history of performance improvement plans or disciplinary write-ups and they were performing well, Smith’s attorney Artur Davis said.

Smith and Davis believe age discrimination was a primary reason for the firings. Smith has an EEOC complaint against the city of Atlanta. She is charging that there was discrimination against her based on age, race and retaliation.

“I understand that you cannot communicate preferences (for workers) under a certain age, but there are some very nonverbal cues that I see occurring in (this) workplace,” said Smith, who is Black. Smith is not related to the former Atlanta City Council woman Carla A. Smith, who is a current employee of the city’s Transportation Department.

The city of Atlanta declined to comment due to the pending lawsuit.

Carla Smith poses for a portrait on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023. Smith, a former director of IT for the City of Atlanta is suing because believes she was unfairly fired based on age. (Natrice Miller/ Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

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Ageism — denying or granting opportunities based on a person’s age — can be an unconscious or deliberate bias when it occurs, experts say, and it’s a growing issue in the workplace. And it can be difficult to prove. If the charging party of an EEOC claim wins their case, they are only entitled to lost wages, Davis said.

In comparison, people found to be victims of race, sex or disability discrimination are entitled to emotional distress damages, he said.

Less than 7% of 11,500 EEOC claims filed in 2022 reached a settlement for discrimination practices in the workplace, the agency shows.

Psychologist Karen Doll coaches corporate professionals who feel undervalued or burnout. She said clients nearing age 50 and older believe they are “getting squeezed out at work by younger talent.”

“The thing about this issue is it’s so insidious, you can’t really pin (companies) down on it. Because they’re not going to say: `We’re not promoting you because you’re 56.’”

Doll, who is chairwoman of Harvard University Human Flourishing at Work Network, said it’s up to senior leadership at corporations to challenge unconscious bias on ageism.

The Society for Human Resource Management conducted a survey this year that showed corporations with diversity, equity and inclusion training were less likely (26%) to report age as a factor in hiring compared to companies without the training (40%).

Sheila Callaham, 59, left a longstanding human resources communications position in 2011 to focus on raising her four sons and had little success finding a new job when she tried to return to corporate America six years later. Courtesy Sheila Callaham

Credit: Courtesy Sheila Callaham

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Credit: Courtesy Sheila Callaham

Sheila Callaham, 59, left a longstanding human resources communications position in 2011 to focus on raising her four sons and had little success finding a new job when she tried to return to corporate America six years later.

Callaham used LinkedIn as a tool to track who was being hired for positions that she was turned down for.

“They were decades younger than me,” Callaham said. “I thought ‘Oh my God, (the hiring managers) think I’m old.’ I didn’t think I was old.”

Friends told Callaham to delete years of experience off her resume because they would allude to her age.

“It was not like I didn’t try different things,” Callaham said. “I rewrote my resume. I took a six-week course on how to interview like a millennial. I spent thousands of dollars to hire a coach who had connections to get me hired. I colored my gray (hair).”

She pitched a column to Forbes magazine on Age and Aging in the workplace and has written more than 150 articles for the publication’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion blog. Callaham also co-founded the nonprofit Age Equity Alliance with Ashton Applewhite, an author and expert on aging and ageism.

The mission of the think tank is to establish age equity in the workplace through training, education and evaluating processes.

“I’ve had recruiters tell me that the hiring manager said: ‘Nobody over 40. Nobody over 50 is to be considered,’” Callaham recalled. “I’ve even had executive recruiters hiring for executive roles tell me that they were told by the CEO: ‘No one over 40.’”

Robert Harper, a board member of Age Equity Alliance, said corporations today have the most educated workforce in history with Baby Boomers, millennials and Generations X, Y and Z.

“On paper, this is the most educated, intelligent group that has ever been around each other … And you’re starting to see in-fighting because they are competing for the same jobs,” Harper said.

He noted Statista data that shows 16- to 24-year-olds are at 41.5% employment, and ages 55 and older are nearly the same at 41.1%

Harper, who is also a board member for Harvard Business Review, added that older workers can’t afford to retire because they don’t have enough money to live on.

“Before COVID, the baristas at my Starbucks were in college or young moms working part-time. The barista age that I’m seeing now are age 45, 50, 60 … because COVID drained their savings,” Harper said.

Corporate coach Michelle Glover helps clients pivot to new careers by focusing on their strengths and passions. Courtesy Michelle Glover

Credit: Courtesy Michelle Glover

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Credit: Courtesy Michelle Glover

Losing a job due to ageism doesn’t mean the end of desirable work, said Michelle Glover, founder of Journey Unlimited consulting firm. Clients near retirement age can have a misconception that they must settle for low-level positions when looking for new opportunities, she said.

The corporate coach helps clients pivot to new careers by focusing on their strengths and passions.

“I had a client in sales leadership and she really was not fulfilled,” Glover said. “We looked at parts of her job that she did like in sales, her passions, and what she wanted to do moving forward. She enjoys writing. Now she’s a communication lead for a major Fortune 100 organization.”

Smith successfully found work in her field of IT after being fired by the city of Atlanta, but she worries about other people terminated from their jobs due to ageism, she said.

“There is such an underlying belief ... in the mindsets of a lot of people in leadership positions ... that middle-aged people lose their social currency and value as they get older. And therefore it leads to complaints and EEOC charges,” Smith said.

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