Diversity Management

Age and Employee Performance

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) was put into law to protect older individuals (those over 40 years of age) from being discriminated against in all employment decisions. Included under the umbrella of employment decisions is: hiring, termination, compensation, placement, training opportunities, and advancement, just to name a few. While older individuals hailed the achievements of the ADEA, many employers, even now, begrudgingly obey the law.

What’s Wrong with Older Employees?

The short answer to this question is: nothing. Unfortunately, some individuals rely on very serious misconceptions regarding the ability of older individuals to be productive in the workplace. Some of the common stereotypes include:
  • They work slower
  • They are difficult to work with
  • They cannot be trained
It is important to realize, with any stereotype, that they are generally not true. They only thrive because people have a tendency to look for examples that prove the stereotype more than examples that disprove the stereotype. In other words, there may be 100 older employees in an office who are all a pleasure to work with, but we tend to remember the one difficult person in the group and justify our stereotype based on this one case.

Older Employees and Task Performance

Research has often looked at one single characteristic when examining age differences: core task performance (performance in key job functions). The prevailing stereotype was that employees are less productive as they get older. This belief is evident in the fact that older employees are rated as worse performers by their peers. To the contrary, supervisor ratings and objective measures, such as sales numbers or work output, tend to suggest that older employees are equal or better performers compared to their younger peers. Thus, peer ratings are showing a clearly incorrect bias against older employees. Several explanations exist as to why older employees may be better performers than younger employees. One such explanation is that the poor performers in a specific job are weeded out at a younger age, leaving only the top performers after the age of 40. Another explanation is that older employees have been doing the job longer and have learned how to do the job more efficiently.

Beyond Task Performance

While task performance is certainly important in judging the success of an employee, there are many other important employee characteristics to consider. Organizational citizenship behaviors (OCBs) are, simply put, behaviors that an individual engages in that are helpful to other employees and the company. OCBs can include staying late to help out on a project, helping other employees to complete their work, and not complaining about trivial, red-tape matters. Putting to rest the ‘difficult to work with’ stereotype, older employees actually perform more OCBs than younger employees. Older employees also engage in fewer counterproductive work behaviors (CWBs), like ‘milking the clock,’ stealing from the office, arriving late, and calling out of work. CWBs are detrimental to organizations. Employee theft alone is estimated to cost between 15 and 25 millions dollars to American organizations. That doesn’t even include the cost of absenteeism, which costs employers time and money.

So, Are Older Employees Perfect?

One of the stereotypes mentioned previously does have some validity: older employees do not perform as well in training classes as younger employees. However, this relationship is not terribly strong, and is largely attributable to the technologal gap that currently exists between the baby-boomers and younger generations who have grown up using computers.

The Bottom Line

Older employees are an invaluable asset to companies and should be treated as such. Not only  do they perform at least as well as younger employees, but they also help to amplify group harmony by performing more OCBs, increase profit margins by engaging in fewer CWBs, and contribute valuable insight through their additional work experience.

Interpretation by:

David Daly

DeGarmo Group

This was a summary of the research and practice implications from:Ng, T. W. H. & Feldman, D. C. (2008). The relationship of age to ten dimensions of job performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(2), 392-423.