Is ‘not a good fit for our culture’ a euphemism for age discrimination?

There has been a major shift in focus on workplace culture for both new and established companies. Culture is the catch all buzz-word to cover everything from office features to ethos. It is a widely welcome trend, as it places higher importance on employee happiness and sense of belonging in the workplace. However, there may be a problem emerging in terms of diversity. In particular, culture may be the reason that older, more experienced workers are being overlooked for roles. One phrase that seems to have become an alternative way of saying ‘you are too old for us’ is ‘not a good culture fit’.

The wrong approach to culture means recruitment becomes a search for people who look like themselves, generally people of similar backgrounds around the same age as them, and could also end up masking discrimination based on age, gender, race and sexual orientation. A lack of gender and racial diversity in an organisation usually raises alarm bells fairly quickly, and rightly so. However, there is a risk that ‘ageism’ can become an ‘acceptable’ form of discrimination in the workplace. On the one hand, we are being told that age is nothing but a number, and we are living and working longer. On the other hand, attitudes in recruitment are slower to catch up. With more people taking career breaks, building portfolio careers and deviating from that traditional linear career path, it’s a problem acutely felt by lawyers who have many years of PQE. A role that would have traditionally been taken at an earlier stage in a traditional linear career is now being sought by anyone who is looking to diversify their experience and work in a different way.

As we live longer and work longer we are seeing more generations working together than ever before. Add to that the rapid technological advancement of companies, there may be a tendency to look for younger recruits who are of the digital generation. A fifth of employees surveyed across Europe by ADP cited age as the biggest barrier to their career progression, with older people feeling particularly isolated. There is also a suggestion that this impacts women more than men, according to research from Tulane University.

As our Agony Aunt has previously discussed, a rigid approach to PQE creates barriers for both young and old. Someone who falls short of the magic number of years PQE because they took a career break, but has amassed valuable transferable skills during that time is more likely be overlooked. Likewise, someone who is looking to change their work patterns and ‘side step’ into a role requiring less experienced is looked at sceptically for being ‘overqualified.’ This coded language of too senior for a role, or the culture fit is wrong really indicates the belief that the person is too old and may be a threat in some way. Technology advancement has allowed us to take more control over our working lives, and employees and employers alike support the virtues of flexible work and non-traditional career paths. Yet when it comes to a number on a CV, it seems age is still used in the old fashioned way as a measure of experience and a person’s value to a company.

If employers value their working culture, they should value individual richness of experience. As we move away from focusing on the hours clocked in at the office, at the same time we should no longer be reducing people to the number of years they have on the clock. A greater mix of generations does create new challenges, but with open communication they can be dispelled. The benefits of shared life experience, a range of insights and perspectives far outweigh those challenges.