Generational leap: Age no bar for Cos.

Vivek (CA ) (2368 Points)

09 January 2011  

Generational leap: Age no bar for Cos

KOLKATA/NEW DELHI: It is taboo at Coca-Cola India to ask the age or marital status of a candidate during a recruitment interview. Managers at the cola giant say what matters to them is the wealth of experience the applicant brings to the table, and whether or not s/he is a good fit for the role. Coca-Cola, which prides itself on being an employee-friendly company, apparently believes that a married woman, or even a person in his or her 40s, can work with the same élan and commitment as perhaps a 20-something.

Cut to the other cola giant, PepsiCo India . In a company where women make up to 25% of its leadership team, the company, on principle, does not discriminate on grounds of gender, age or marital status. At PepsiCo, an older professional stands as much of a chance at making the grade as a younger one, all other factors in their profile remaining the same.

Apart from the demand-supply gap, demographics too have influenced corporate policy. Just 35% of working population is in the 25-35-year age group.

Welcome to a new reality in India Inc which, for long, has been reluctant to hire older professionals — typically people in their 40s and above — preferring people in their 20s and 30s. Senior management is an exception, of course, across companies. At this level, free movement of talent across age groups, even among retired professionals, is encouraged, provided the employees have the requisite skills.

Turning the hitherto ageist ethos on its head, companies are opening their doors to middle-aged professionals, and considering them for jobs that they might have been refused, even a few years ago, for — simply put — being too old. HR experts say companies are quietly chipping away at the other glass ceiling, the one that involves age restrictions, simply because talent is so hard to come by.

“Hiring stereotypes which used to exist earlier, have almost disappeared, given that companies are facing a lot of impediments, while trying to find appropriate employees,” says Mahindra & Mahindra executive vice president (human capital - automotive and farm division) Augustin Prince.

The Mumbai-based automobile company prides itself on being age-blind, and therefore an equal-opportunity employer in the true sense. LG Electronics, Samsung and Dabur say they do the same. A case in point: of the 80-odd people working at Dabur’s R&D centre, most are middle-aged professionals.

However, Dabur India’s executive director (HR) A Sudhakar says that even though age and marital status does not decide whether a candidate will get the job or not, it does verify these along with the family background. “In today's world, security is a major concern. We need to get all the details before hiring any candidate. Even family background is important,” he says.

In the US, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967 protects individuals who are 40 years or older from employment discrimination, based on age. It deems that it is unlawful to discriminate against a person because of age with respect to any term, condition, or privilege of employment, including hiring, firing, promotion, layoff, compensation, benefits, job assignments and training. In fact, the ADEA protection applies to both employees and job applicants alike.

While there is no equivalent act in India — and it is an established practice to mention age and marital status in one’s resume — a lot of recruiters are choosing not to consider such factors while hiring. HR analysts feel while talent shortage has been the prime driver in this, changes in society are also responsible. “Increased urbanisation is bringing a culture where recruiters much more broadminded than before,” says Ajit Isaac , managing director at Ikya Human Capital Solutions, a Bangalore-based headhunter.

“The desire to grow fast is also enabling Indian companies to look at all types of skill sets across age groups. It is the services sector which is leading this change for a more inclusive method of hiring.”

According to Shalini Sarin, HR director at Schneider Electric India, a global leader in energy management: “Companies are even ready to rope in professionals who have crossed the official age of retirement (60 years). Though this is limited to niche skills and jobs, where availability of talent or expertise is a problem in itself.”

Even the knowledge industries like IT, ITeS and biotech, which have one of the youngest average age of employees at around 30 years, have started to hire candidates well past 50 years. Examples of such hiring abound in companies like Wipro , Infosys and Mahindra Satyam.

“The knowledge industry is increasingly valuing cerebral capability and knowledge over age. However, there are some areas when age becomes a criteria, like when hiring from the campus where we typically prefer candidates who are young. But a lot of experimentation is happening in hiring of aged people,” says Mahindra Satyam chief people officer T Hari.

While it is largely a demand-and-supply problem that has triggered this change in India, in countries abroad demographics of the working population also play a role. According to estimates, only 35% of the working population in India is in the age group of 25-35 years. That leaves recruiters with little choice but to look outside of this age bracket.

In September, Sarla Dayal , 45 quit her job as an assistant manager in one of the top private sector banks, to join a broking firm. Dayal says it took her five months to find the new job, but says it is Indian companies’ new anti age-discrimination line that encouraged her to start looking, in the first place.

“My former colleagues were surprised that I managed to change jobs when, at 40-plus, you are thought of as being a ‘lifer’ in the company you work,” says Dayal. But it’s not enough merely to be able to find a new job. Dayal says she will be happier when employers stop taking “employees like us for granted, with no promotions and paltry salary hikes”. Given the talent crunch, HR managers feel that might happen sooner than imagined.

No doubt an Indian version of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act will, indeed, be a welcome legislation.

US has a law against discrimination on age grounds. we are getting there...

- IT/ ITeS companies, the stronghold of the younger workforce, are seeking more and more people in the 40-55 age group. Their logic: this population of employees is more mature and has a negligible attrition rate.

- Indian equivalent of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 in the US will be welcome, as Indian population is greying.

- Old economy companies in sectors like manufacturing and energy still tend to discriminate based on their age.