What do we know about age stereotyping in personnel decisions?

Dr Lisbeth Drury and Dr Keely Jo Frasca share insights from a new commentary paper published in Work, Aging and Retirement with co-authors Maaike Schellaert and Prof Eva Derous (Ghent University).

Do age stereotypes influence personnel decisions? While there is a wide body of research exploring age stereotyping in the workplace, a recent commentary paper by Murphy & DeNisi (2021) has questioned the validity and usefulness of lab studies in this area. In the commentary paper ‘Age Stereotyping in Resume Screening: Don’t Throw the Baby Out With the Bathwater’, we explore the implications and validity of research in this area and suggest some avenues for future research.

Why stereotypes matter in resume screening

Stereotypes are widely held, over simplified ideas about the characteristics and behaviour of particular social groups. We know from impression formation theory (Fiske & Neuberg, 1990) that we revert to stereotypes when meeting a stranger, but that we consider people on an individual basis when more detailed information is provided, for example through conversation.

Many personnel decisions are made once staff are known on an individual level, for example performance reviews, promotion decisions, or offers of employment following an interview. In these instances, knowing the person on an individual level is more likely to influence decision-makers’ thinking than stereotypes.

However, when it comes to external hires, the process of reviewing resumes can be viewed as a ‘stranger-to-stranger’ interaction, which is more likely to lead to stereotyping because of the lack of wider knowledge about the candidate. While we cannot exclude the impact of bias at interview, we expect age stereotypes to have the greatest influence at resume screening stage. It is, therefore, important to examine the effects of age stereotypes in resume screening separately from other types of personnel decisions.

Issues with lab studies

Lab studies have been criticised because scenarios where participants judge fictitious workers ‘on paper’ are not deemed realistic (Murphy & DeNisi, 2021). This may be true in the case of performance evaluations or promotion decisions, where a written vignette may not feel true to life. However, for job applications, which are in an ‘on paper’ format in real life, such studies may offer greater validity.

Furthermore, there is criticism about the use of student participants to judge resumes, rather than HR personnel or assessors with experience. However, most studies include a combination of both types of participants and decisions are similar across these two groups.

Triangulating the findings of age stereotype research

It is important to note that resume screening research does not always report age bias towards older workers. This could be for several reasons, for example how the study has been designed and whether age cues in the resumes are implicit (e.g. an older sounding name) or explicit (e.g. date of birth). More research is needed to understand the conditions that cause disparities in findings, by decreasing or increasing bias.

Age stereotypes are complex and research in this area uses a wide range of methods and theoretical approaches. While each study alone may not give a full picture, together they provide a wealth of evidence that is greater than the sum of their parts. By combining what we know from different methodologies, disciplines and theories, we can reach greater insight.

Instead of ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ by discounting particular types of research, we should conduct more research in both the field and lab, triangulating the results, to gain a holistic understanding of how and to what extent age stereotypes affect the outcomes of resume screening.

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