The Gray Divide: Aging and employment in Utah’s tech sector

When fine lines turn to creases and those three gray hairs proliferate into hundreds more, many workers across the country get anxious about job security. They have good reason. Experts recently convened in Washington, D.C., to warn the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that age discrimination is alive and kickin’—even though it’s been 50 years since the passing of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

In a press release issued after the public meeting, the EEOC cited a 2017 AARP survey, stating, “Nearly two-thirds of workers age 55-64 report their age as a barrier to getting a job.” The release also stated, “Laurie McCann, a senior attorney for AARP Foundation Litigation, cited hiring discrimination and mandatory retirement as persistent problems that older workers face across industries.”

The trend for age discrimination seems especially strong in the tech sector, with a USA Today article from late last year citing 90 age-related complaints against leading Silicon Valley companies since 2012.

With that kind of dour outlook, what about the local hiring scene? Does widespread age discrimination hold true in the Beehive State—particularly in the technology sector, which has a reputation as a millennial stronghold? Do Utah tech companies, many founded by youngsters, tend to hire their own?

Best practices

“When I was in law school, one of my professors said to departing students, that law firms’ hiring decisions will often come down to, ‘Is this person a PLU?’ meaning a Person Like Us. There’s a whole lot of baggage associated with that acronym, but fundamentally I think there is a tendency to look for PLUs,” says Ryan D. Nelson, Utah president of Employers Council. But, he adds, “These are generalizations, and to some extent assumptions. Actually, quite a few of the tech companies I have dealings with or have been exposed to have very savvy and competent HR individuals and internal practices and procedures to make sure that they’re not making decisions based on illegal considerations.”

Yep, he says illegal. That’s because due to the ADEA, it would be illegal to not hire, or to fire, an employee, based on age. It’s a civil right that’s on par with those protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which guards workers from being discriminated against for sex, race, color, national origin, or religion.

Nelson explains, “Age is protected. Because I’m over 40, I am now protected for being an ‘older worker.’ Age cannot be used as the basis for decisions relating to my employment relationship, and it also extends protections to applicants—age discrimination is off limits in the hiring. The goal is to create a process where the hiring or employment decisions are made without the decision-maker taking into consideration any protected characteristics.”

While the law is technically supposed to protect older workers, do Utah companies tend to look past the gray divide—for reasons other than avoiding ADEA violations?

The right fit

“We don’t see a bias for age discrimination,” says Kevin Parker, CEO of HireVue, a Salt Lake City-based company that provides global organizations video intelligence to facilitate video interviewing, assessments and coaching. “We work hard to find the best talent we possibly can. We look far and wide, and experience does matter.”

Parker is 57 years old, which, he says, “is a bit on the older side from a tech perspective. I’ve been in the tech business more than 25 years. Having worked through challenges before in growing different companies—that experience adds to HireVue in a variety of ways. Tech seems to be egalitarian about these things. People are looking for the right combo of skills and experience.”

At Domo, that “right-fit” philosophy is exactly how the American Fork-based provider of business analytics approaches its hiring.

Cathy Donahoe, Domo vice president of human resources, says, “Domo’s workforce is highly distributed with regards to age. As a technology startup, we look for the right fit and experience for the role(s) we are recruiting. Particularly in our technology/engineering workforce, we hire ‘lighthouses.’ Lighthouses are the tried-and-tested individuals who have proven their capabilities, both from technical, skill set and leadership experiences. More life experiences give these workers a unique tool set that is only developed with time.”

Around the block

Nelson, who oversees the local Employers Council’s human resource and employment law services, agrees upon the contributions of older workers, saying, “What makes a company more successful but also better positioned to weather the ups and downs of business are steady and experienced hands, those who have been around the block more than once. I’m convinced that when a company or executive or decision-maker has more information, they can make a better decision. So I think fundamentally, diversity at the table where decisions are made is critical to avoiding groupthink, to avoiding inherent bias, and arriving at better decisions with better outcomes.”

Parker emphasizes that diversity makes a difference for his company and those they work with. “That great chemistry that comes from any diversity, but particularly with age, it creates a great synergy. When you can bring experience to the table, accompanying that with great ideas and great raw talent, that’s when exciting things happen.”

As someone who focuses full-time on helping organizations hire the optimal employee for the position, Parker suggests that tech companies keep in mind the value of adding experienced workers to the team. “Sometimes the best ideas struggle because of a lack of experience. As we often say, the tech itself is not enough. There are humans involved in all these decision-making processes. It takes personal intervention to make tech successful. A more senior workforce has that experience, and others can learn from them.”

Donahoe likewise encourages companies to take advantage of seasoned workers. “From a people management perspective, this is the first time that companies have had five generations in the workplace. The tech sector is well positioned to embrace this segment of diversity,” says Donahoe. “That being said, the ‘lighthouse’ possesses wisdom from experiences and lessons that are passed down to help to those early in their career development. Even with the millennial generation being highly technology savvy and socially connected, they still need to gain experience in the art of collaboration, negotiation and developing professional relationships in the workplace. The observation of those skills exhibited by, and coached through, the more senior team members is an important part of passing the torch from generation to generation.”

Donahoe adds that retaining a diverse mix of employees is just as important as hiring that right mix. “One thing to think about when it comes to age distribution is understanding that benefits programs are about what matters most to your workforce and the demographics in each company location,” she says. “For example, Domo’s benefits include programs that are relevant to broad age groups—from a strong medical benefits program that includes an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), to fertility benefits for those employees starting to have families. Our offered benefits are investments in our workforce and culture.”

With perspectives like these from leading Utah organizations, it looks as if the prognosis is promising for aging workers in the state. With a robust—and growing—tech sector, especially along Utah’s Silicon Slopes, this may be just one more reason Utah is “the place” to work, to live … and to grow old.