How Search Committees Can Be Bias Disrupters Against Ageism

By Ashlee Winters Musser

Leadership search committees have an outsized influence on shaping the future of an institution, especially culturally. It’s essential, then, that they do their work without bias. While such committees tend to be conscious of potential biases based on gender, race, and sexual orientation, they may lack awareness of other forms of discrimination – ageism being one.

People often see ageism as a lesser form of discrimination – the last socially acceptable “ism”, experts say. Search committees can do their part to change that.

Ageism, as defined by the World Health Organization, refers to the “stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel), and discrimination (how we act) towards others or ourselves based on age.” Ageism in a professional context is most often directed at either older or younger individuals, though certainly terms like “middle-aged” or “millennial” can be used negatively and derisively. According to WHO, half of us hold biases against older people. Ageist attitudes can exacerbate other biases we are all too familiar with. Some 72% of women ages 45-74 believe they’ve experienced ageism as opposed to just 57% of men, according to AARP.

Many executives feel their age is often the only thing preventing them from being selected for a new position. So while ageism is not always at the top of the list when search committees set out to address diversity, equity and inclusion-related issues in their work, it deserves attention and concerted effort to limit its impact.

The following are some ways that age and generation discrimination can creep into the search process:

  • Search committee members trying to “do the math” on when a candidate graduated from college or their degree program, or using search engines to determine their age;
  • Similarly, making calculations (and assumptions) on how many working years or “productive years” a candidate has left;
  • Making offhand comments such as “She seems young” or “That’s a heavy workload for him”. Or here’s a good one: “This job would be their swan song.”
  • Using age-specific language or requirements in job descriptions which can exclude candidates from certain age groups (for example, “15 years of experience in . . . “);
  • Asking interview questions geared towards retirement plans or health status;
  • Assessing candidates based on stereotypical concepts of age (e.g., that older candidates may lack energy or be resistant to change, or be tech-averse since they are not “digital natives”).

Ageism such as this leads to biased evaluations and decisions, and search committees must be bias disrupters to properly assess candidates for a fair and equitable hire, leading to the best decision for the leadership team and the institution.

How can search committees work to combat ageism? Here are a few ways:

  1. Proactively address ageist attitudes and behaviors within the search committee.

Candidates will be curious as to whether a hiring organization is one that tolerates ageist behaviors and, if so, may be turned off from joining it. If these behaviors are displayed by the search committee, candidates will sense it and ask themselves what this says about the organization as a whole. The search committee, therefore, can:

  • Select committee representation that is age-diverse, ranging from students to senior administrators and everything in between;
  • Review institutional policies regarding age discrimination, especially related to hiring;
  • Openly discuss concepts of implicit bias (including that based on age) in meetings preceding the search. Something as simple as having committee members take the Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT) for age can go a long way towards minimizing age bias in search activities; the WHO report on ageism has information, a toolkit, and conversation starters;
  • Find ways to allow all committee members (especially students and early-careerists) to participate in discussions and decision-making, so that the voices of a few do not dominate proceedings;
  • Ensure candidate application materials are “age blind” if at all possible. Applicants should not need to cite the dates on which they received their degrees, for instance.
  1. Think beyond the individual hire. 

Every leadership hire brings unique skills and experiences, becomes a contributor to the larger executive team, and is thus a “culture add” and complement to others within the institution. For this reason, resist the temptation to hire an individual within the vacuum of the position they are vying for. Consider how the hiring decision will impact the organization.

Ideally, your organization will have conducted succession planning which considers your long-term talent and skills needs within the context of broader strategic planning. If so, use succession plans as the foundation for a hiring process that values diversity (including varying ages and multi-generational teams) and utilizes individuals’ strengths to contribute to the whole. Organizations which have strong mentoring programs can also reduce the significance of age (and even take advantage of cross-mentoring where professionals of different generations can learn from each other).

There are real benefits to multigenerational teams. Each generation brings a unique set of experiences, values, and viewpoints to the table. This diversity of perspectives can lead to more creative problem-solving and innovative ideas. Different generations may approach challenges and opportunities in distinct ways, fostering a rich exchange of ideas.

  1. Know what you can and cannot ask in an interview.

There are questions search committees cannot ask in an interview, even if the candidate mentions the topic themselves. A common example: If a candidate mentions how the location of the job is a great place to retire, search committee members should not ask follow up questions like, “How long do you intend to work before retiring?” A candidate might also reference their breadth of experience given the number of years they have been in the field. If a candidate references a certain number of years working, it goes against EEOC guidelines to follow up by asking their age, or even, “When did you graduate from college?” Detailing a list of off-limit, inappropriate interview questions before interviews begin is also a way to mitigate ageism and bias.

A comprehensive candidate evaluation rubric to measure abilities and potential can combat ageism by ensuring that all candidates are evaluated on the same criteria, regardless of their age. A rubric should be specific and measurable, so that all candidates are evaluated fairly. Designing questions that align with the rubric will allow the committee to gain a more comprehensive understanding of a candidate’s potential to contribute to your organization by asking questions that assess their abilities, competencies, problem-solving expertise, sense of innovation and aptitude for working in your organizational structure – things that are not necessarily reflected on their resume or C.V.

Carefully-crafted open-ended questions will elicit a more robust response getting to those key qualities and qualifications and guard against ageism. Instead of asking, “How much experience have you had leading . . . ?”, try something like: “Share specific examples of how you have led . . . .” Other good questions include:

  • Tell us about your philosophy and approach to leadership. Specifically, describe how you have built and led high-functioning teams – that often represent a diversity of viewpoints and agendas – to develop consensus and create positive change.
  • What is your approach to recruiting, retaining, and developing your team of professionals? What specific strategies have you implemented to motivate, inspire, support, develop, and retain your team?
  • Please reflect upon the changing and dynamic landscape within the industry. What do you see as the most significant challenges and what are some new strategies, ideas, and tools that you have employed to anticipate these developments?
  • Give an example of how you have had to communicate a complex idea to an audience. How did you make sure your message was clear, concise, and remembered?

Behavior-based and other psychometric assessment tools can also provide insight into a candidate’s ability to thrive in certain environments. While assessments in and of themselves should not be sole determinants of selection, they can complement interviews, resumes, references, and other information gathered to create a more well-rounded picture of individuals – a picture that focuses on abilities and tendencies and de-emphasizes a factor such as age in candidate selection.

End of an -Ism?

The strategies outlined above will help search committee members become more open-minded, fair, and balanced in their handling and assessments of candidates regardless of age. For executives especially, ageism can rear its ugly head as a primary inhibitor to achieving career goals. It’s important that search committees take this “ism” as seriously as any other.

Ashlee Winters Musser is a senior associate in WittKieffer’s Education Practice.