For librarians battling age discrimination

Ageism in the LIS profession

age-discrimination-library-lis-profession
age-discrimination-library-lis-profession

The trend toward older workers forgoing retirement and instead choosing to continue to work is unlikely to abate anytime soon. Many seniors are finding they simply enjoy their jobs and don’t want to leave them sooner than necessary, while others continue to work out of financial need. The LIS profession is no exception to this demographic direction.

At the same time, a large portion of about 5,000 annual MLIS/iSchool graduates are streaming (or attempting to do so) into library workplaces, especially public and academic libraries. They’re hoping to use their newly-minted masters’ degrees to engage and participate in their employers’ challenges and opportunities.

Not only are recent grads coming in with exceptional skills, they’re typically coming in for much lower salaries than those paid to employees who’ve been in place for twenty, thirty or even forty-plus years. In addition, many are being hired to do professional-level work but with paraprofessional titles, and being asked to work part-time without benefits in order to help balance difficult budget priorities.

Putting aside, for now, the impact this has on our new professionals’ career opportunities and financial well-being, another consequence of this employment mismatch among job supply, demand, and budgets is to create an environment ripe for age discrimination. Lowering staff costs is an easy target when it comes to budget-balancing.

Forms of age discrimination in library workplaces

Librarians may experience age discrimination in a number of ways, some obvious, others less so (or less easy to prove). For example:

While job-searching

From online discussion groups to professional association career centers to local meet-ups with LIS colleagues, stories about ignored job applications and rejected resumes among older, unemployed professionals are commonplace. Older individuals hesitate to put a professional headshot on their social media profiles for fear of being dismissed as “too old,” having out-of-date skills, or expecting too high a salary.

After having resumes ignored over and over, some older job applicants begin to search job descriptions for “code” phrases (one question that generated a high volume of discussion on an LIS career options LinkedIn group was whether the descriptor “high energy” was actually a signal that the employer was looking for young applicants).

In workplace assignments

Another way age discrimination can play out is through a reduction in workplace responsibilities and/or opportunities. It’s not an official demotion, because the job title probably doesn’t change, but it’s a steady diminishment of the employee’s professional standing and respect in the organization, often signaled by being continually passed over for promotion.

In workplace hostility

Some managers, often those who’ve recently come into a new library setting and are eager to shake things up, feel no compunction about targeting older workers they feel don’t fit their change vision for the library. Essentially, by making life sufficiently miserable, the older workers simply quit. This is an exceptionally toxic situation for the entire organization, but it’s also a terribly cowardly, unfair, and unethical way to deal with employee relations. Needless to say, the resulting emotional and professional damage to the targeted employee is incalculable.

How to know if you’re experiencing legally-actionable age discrimination

Despite the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), which makes it illegal to discriminate against an employee 40 or older based on their age, age discrimination is notoriously difficult to prove. This law and its more recent amendment, The Older Workers Benefit Protection Act, are enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal government agency.

If you feel you may be experiencing age discrimination (or may have been discriminated against in the recent past) because of your age, you may want to start by reading about protections, coverage, exemptions, and how to take action in the “Illegal Discrimination” chapter of the excellent Your Rights in the Workplace, 10th ed. (Barbara Kate Repa and Lisa Guerin, authors, Nolo, 2014).

If, after reading through the relevant information, you believe that you are, in fact, being discriminated against because of your age, it’s probably time to see an employment attorney.

But first – perhaps an ageism reality check

One of the reasons age discrimination may be difficult to prove is that some older workers may, in fact, be their own worst enemies. You probably recognize that co-worker: constantly negative and pessimistic, resistant to any type of change, hostile toward any type of constructive coaching, frightened by and/or dismissive of new technologies, disrespectful of new hires fresh from graduate school.

These individuals may mistakenly assume a manager’s difficult relationship with them is based on age discrimination when the reality is that manager is simply trying to limit the damage the employee’s toxic attitude can inflict on the workplace and other members of the team. A bad attitude is poisonous, regardless of the age of the owner of that bad attitude, and a good manager must take steps to address the issue.

So before deciding that you’re the victim of age discrimination on the job, consider whether your own actions and attitudes might be having a negative effect on your relationship with your manager. It never hurts to try to improve relations through your own professional awareness and efforts before talking to a lawyer.

Heading off age discrimination

The statement “the best defense is a good offense,” widely attributed to heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey, is also a terrific strategy for heading off age discrimination (assuming that new manager isn’t simply an irrational, egomaniac idiot). Here are some actions that will offset the age factor, helping you stand out instead for your excellence factor:

Check your attitude

As LibGig’s Director of Recruiting, Brad Rogers, points out,

“Some of our most amazing employees are those who’ve been working for decades. What distinguishes them is their attitude. They’re always up for the next adventure, eager to learn new things, and passionate about contributing at a high level. They have a very positive attitude about their work, about contracting, and also about their lives.”

That type of mindset is valuable to every employer, and in many instances will be a competitive edge for you.

Embrace technology

You may never love those new gadgets and tech-driven processes, but now’s the time to suck it up, embrace your inner learner, and never allow yourself to utter those damning words “Do I really have to learn how to do this?”

Make sure you’re managing up, across, and down

Whether or not you’re officially a manager, part of your job is to find ways to help bring out the best in all of your coworkers. Managing up is figuring out what your boss needs from you to feel happy about and confident in your performance, and doing those things (no matter what you may think of them). A key here is figuring out how your boss likes his or her communication flow – and then following it religiously.

Managing across is working collaboratively, enthusiastically, and supportively with your coworkers. Keep in mind that any negativity emanating from you will send a toxic ripple through all of those around you – and that’s just not fair to them.

Managing down is where you can really demonstrate that age isn’t a factor in how terrific you are. By embracing, supporting, and encouraging “the youngsters,” by becoming a mentor to and advocate for their professional transition and development, and by being excited to learn from them, you make it clear to all involved that you’re a valuable contributor to the organization’s growth. Think “open to new ideas” rather than “we don’t do it that way here.” You’ll be astounded by the good will this will generate, especially among your younger colleagues.

Become an expert at something of career value

No one is indispensible, but it’s always good for job security if you can become the go-to person in some topic area that has value to the library.

For example, be the one who creates and puts on the small-business meet-up programs that the mayor and all the library board members love to talk about. Become the person who creates and manages the on-boarding procedure for new hires that has a terrific impact on their engagement and enthusiasm. Or perhaps be the one person whose people skills are so amazing that you’re the only one who can get all of the department heads to collaborate on a new initiative.

Consider negotiating a reduction in hours

If your high salary makes it difficult for your employer to find the resources to meet new staffing needs and you can afford to do so, consider offering to move into a part-time role. Similar to “phased retirement,” this allows the organization to retain your skills and institutional knowledge while lowering their costs. And it allows you to remain a valued part of the family.

Retain your sense of humor

As world-renowned actress Bette Davis pointed out so many years ago, “Getting old is not for sissies.” But honestly, just about any stage isn’t for sissies – we’re all dealing with our own challenges. The best way to overcome an unhealthy focus on your own challenges? Find ways to laugh at yourself, your failings, and your adventures. “He who laughs at himself never runs out of things to laugh at,” according to Epictetus, and wouldn’t you rather laugh at life every chance you have?

Is it age discrimination? Assessing your situation

If you’ve tried all of these ideas to improve the situation and things just keep getting worse, it’s probably time to start keeping a record of your interactions with your tormentor. Take a look at the section on age discrimination in Your Rights in the Workplace, 10th ed., and decide whether you need to consult with an attorney.

Alternatively, it might make sense to simply look for a different job to see if opportunities might be available that provide a more hospitable and employee-friendly work environment.

Kim Dority

Kim Dority

Kim Dority is a library and information science (LIS) career adviser and consultant. As Adjunct Faculty at the University of Denver's Library/Information Sciences Program, she teaches graduate courses on alternative MLIS career options. Special Libraries Association (SLA) has awarded Ms. Dority the Rose L. Vormelker Award for her commitment to teaching and professional development.
Kim Dority
Kim Dority

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