Adaptation (Five Years Ago Today)

On January 9, 2012, in HRExaminer, John Sumser, by John Sumser

(from the Archives)adaptation in the HR workforce

(Jan 9, 2007) Whenever the demographic noose tightens, employers always learn to discover employable talent where it once looked like there was none. The people who own and run businesses are astonishingly adept at the art of solving intractable problems. Redefining and reframing are survival level business skills. When types of employees are scarce, employers routinely redefine the job requirements so that someone else can do them.

This is particularly true today.

In Western economies (starting with Japan in the 1990s), the population is aging. This means that there are proportionally more older workers and fewer younger workers each passing day. Tasks that were routinely performed by young people are increasingly performed by older people.

The speed at which employers adapt to changes in the composition of the workforce is pretty amazing. Before the trend can begin to be communicated, businesses shift their hiring practices. The need for people to produce revenue always trumps the need to pigeonhole them. Businesses adapt to market changes faster than you can talk about it. That’s what a business is.

If you need a dynamic salesperson, knowing that this year’s revenue depends on having one, it doesn’t matter what the societal assumptions about a particular candidate are. If you have plenty of promising candidates, you can discriminate all night and day.

People are somewhat different. They accumulate wisdom through experience. The old saying goes, “Experts can not be taught.” In other words, ‘common sense’, or the accumulated wisdom of a culture, is often wrong these days. Demographic shifts and technological revolutions routinely turn our assumptions inside out.

Businesses are more adept at responding to changes in the market than are individuals. That’s a funny sounding notion but it’s particularly true in the area of age bias. Businesses can not afford to discriminate when it gets in the way of making money. People’s perception that age bias influences decision making appears to exist regardless of the facts.

Age discrimination is the act of making a hiring decision based on beliefs about the impact of age on suitability for a particular job.

Businesses believe that age discrimination is decreasing. People believe that it is a universal phenomenon. The two views can be accounted for  by the speed at which the two groups learn about these sorts of things. Businesses learn faster because they must. People can have nearly opposing motives.

As a result, employers are likely to forget the impact of their hiring process on people’s perceptions. Given the fact that people are very likely to believe that a company discriminates based on age, a broad range of normal organizational behavior will be interpreted as evidence of age discrimination.

For example, the hiring processes at most companies are unfriendly and threatening. Resumes and job applications routinely go unacknowledged. Jobs are won and lost with limited or no feedback to the candidates involved in the process.  These routine experiences take on a darker tone when viewed through the lens of age discrimination.

The job hunting process is a quest for meaning for the people who are looking for work. This means that they analyze the minutiae of their experience for feedback to improve the results of their search. Everything is under the microscope when you are seeking employment.

If you are predisposed to believe that the employment process is rigged against the group you belong to (and the belief in age discrimination is nearly universal), that will be the way you interpret otherwise meaningless trivia.

Now, more than ever, businesses have to manage the way that their employment brand interacts with conventional thinking. If candidates are inclined to see things a certain way, savvy employers will work with that perception. Current practices ignore candidate perception and, as a result, allow widespread assumptions to go unchallenged.

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