The EFMD business magazine

The EFMD business magazine

How business schools can help employers to effectively manage an ageing workforce

how business schools can help employers to effectively manage an ageing workforce
Sarah Hardcastle on research, leadership roles and in practice, with Fiona Devine, Wendy Loretto and Steve Butler – part two of an article for Global Focus on the ageing workforce.

As career structures change, cliff-edge retirement that can cast aside people who may be psychologically and financially unprepared may well become a thing of the past. Offering an opportunity for a full and frank discussion and creating a framework enabling a change of roles or greater flexibility and/or fewer hours gives employees who are transitioning out of the workforce a choice of alternatives.

The idea of a ‘Midlife Review’ is gaining significant traction to open up such conversations and plan ahead accordingly. Differing from regular career discussions, it reviews a person’s situation holistically, taking into consideration everything that may impact their work in the medium to long term. It is crucial that the overriding objective of any Midlife Review is the retention of talent and experience by identifying the right way forward to meet the needs and aspirations of both the employees and the organisation. It is not a way to gently edge someone out.

“Actually, it is about good performance management throughout each life stage, so you’re not singling somebody out when it comes nearer to when they might like to retire, or you might like them to retire. It is not about just putting age as a compartmentalised subject. It actually links with mainstream good HR as well.” Professor Wendy Loretto

This conversation becomes a starting point for deeper reflection on finances, work aspirations and overall well-being. It is a time for people to stop, re-evaluate, and think about taking time out to pursue interests or explore other avenues, even if that means moving to part-time, changing roles, winding down to retirement or leaving entirely.

“I think that for many academics, their job and their job identity is so powerful and actually moving away from it is something for a lot of people, and I suspect also in senior management positions and managerial jobs, that’s very hard, as there’s a sense of what they might be losing.” Professor Fiona Devine

This also raises challenges for the employee to consider: How will they negotiate changes with their employer or go about job hunting or retraining? How will they finance the years ahead if they are going to work less or in less well-paid roles?

“In academia, people might wish to drop down to fractional contracts because they have other interests in life – they’ve ticked a number of boxes and don’t want to prove themselves across the school… However, there’s still an institutional perspective: you’ve always got to marry what the institution wants of somebody with that person’s individual preference.” Professor Fiona Devine

While business schools talk about lifelong learning, there is a challenge to providing this in a financially sustainable way and getting people to actually pay for it.

“If we put on free courses, I think we could get lots of people – ‘I want to do something different. I want to re-evaluate’, but I’m not sure people are willing to pay for this. That is, I think, a challenge that we’re currently facing.” Professor Wendy Loretto

At Punter Southall Aspire, they have found that from an employer’s perspective, there can be huge value in getting mid-career employees to reflect on what they want their future to be.

“So, as an employer, I would pay to have those employees supported in that reflection process. Because often, when I have the conversation, I ask, ‘What do you want the next ten years to look like?’ And they don’t know. They haven’t thought about it. They haven’t visualised it. They’ve qualified as a professional, and they’re doing their job, and that’s as far as they’ve got.” Steve Butler

Age is often left out of EDI conversations – in some organisations; it is almost as if age discrimination is justified in order to achieve equality in other dimensions. In Athena Swan, the focus is primarily on gender, but Edinburgh has chosen a focus on age. However, even with this focus and their related ongoing research, historically, some of the older employees have still been reticent to discuss the topic.

Such candid conversations can cause anxiety on both sides:

Managers can be extremely nervous and need to be both empowered to have the conversations and also to act on the content discussed. In research at Edinburgh, they have found that employers who are unfamiliar with this approach are genuinely concerned that they are not seen as ageist. Instead, there is a vacuum as they avoid the conversation, even though it is simply a discussion about each individual person’s circumstances.

“And the older worker thinks, well, nobody cares about me because nobody’s talking to me and nobody’s finding out what I’m interested in.” Professor Wendy Loretto

On the other hand, employees who are in the later stages of their careers may worry about saying the wrong thing to a younger manager, and so a great deal of personal reflection is required in advance.

These conversations are both personalised and personal in nature, and employees need to feel they can be completely honest about what interests them going forward. They should not feel committed to what is discussed because, in time, both their minds and their circumstances may well change. An offer of confidential specialist financial advice as part of this process provides context and understanding of the implications of employment decisions to scale back or change to more flexible roles.

Although HE is traditionally very good at offering staged retirement, conversations can still be tricky.

“People are so passionate about their research and don’t imagine stopping even when they’re formally retired. They are part of a community of practice, and that is a very important part of academic life, even continuing after retirement. It’s about thinking how to maintain things that people can do. We all dance around the conversation because we don’t want to offend anybody or have those discussions in inappropriate ways.” Professor Fiona Devine

For success, trust is key, especially when both sides are considering options for some years ahead.

At Hardcastle & Associates, conversations with talent managers have identified barriers to hiring older workers when the HR Department might be completely on board with promoting an age-diverse workforce, putting forward people with transferable skills from other industries, and more experienced people who may, for a variety of reasons, prefer a ‘smaller’ job to one previously held.

HR can be frustrated by hiring managers who:

  • perceive this type of hire as having greater risk, opting for perceived ‘safe’ hires instead
  • are not comfortable managing someone older and/or more experienced than themselves
  • feel that an older employee may not stay long, when in fact, they are likely to stay longer than the average graduate.

Business schools can help line managers to be more open-minded about who they hire through content in management education, guiding leaders in assessing the risk and advantages of having a more diverse workforce and helping to break down some of these barriers to change.

“Business schools can create space for some of those conversations to happen, creating communities of practice and having honest conversations about why change might be difficult.” Professor Fiona Devine

The Work and Equalities Institute at Alliance Manchester considers issues of all different types of dividing lines within a workforce:

“And many of our colleagues from the Institute will be contributing, particularly to our undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in people and organisational development, HR and more generally on organisations and society.” Professor Fiona Devine

At Edinburgh, this content forms part of Strategic HR, taught at all levels. However, like EDI ten years ago, students do not always comprehend its relevance as part of core content.

Edinburgh has also been working with Age Scotland (affiliated with Age UK) to provide some training for line managers and now has Scottish Government funding for a joint project to roll out the training online.

“I see business schools doing things in their own right, but also partnering with some of the really good charities or indeed businesses in this area.” Professor Wendy Loretto

Edinburgh has been working on an Age Inclusion Matrix, which is a consultancy offering from Age Scotland where two of their consultants work with an organisation, first of all, to diagnose what sort of age-related challenges they have and, very popular with employees, conduct what has become known as a midlife MOT.

The challenge to business schools is to take the lifelong part of lifelong learning really seriously and shift the main focus from those in a fairly narrow younger age range to a broader focus encompassing all sectors of the workforce in the EDI agenda and to find a way to make reskilling older workers financially viable. Most importantly, the challenge is to open up conversations both within their own institutions and to facilitate this in organisations they work with, and their students work for, making it more acceptable to talk about the challenges older workers face and the options available to them and bringing benefit to employee and employer alike.

“I think we need to really harness our own practice and how we leverage the benefits of intergenerational working. I think we’re still relatively in our infancy in how we do that, and there are some areas we’re all really struggling to recruit in because we’ve just got fewer people coming into academia. Increasingly we’re struggling in professional services as well. With the labour market shortage, it means taking a really long, hard look at ourselves in terms of how we manage age at all life stages and making work attractive for people. So, there’s the challenge about intergenerational working, and the second challenge is about age-appropriate management at all stages of people’s careers and all types of careers.

I think sometimes there aren’t easy decisions, easy answers. This is difficult; we see this with line management in so many other sensitive areas, whether it’s health management, particularly mental health issues, stress, etc… And I think age can be like that. These are tricky issues, but training and empowering line managers is really needed.” Professor Wendy Loretto

How business schools can help employers to effectively manage an ageing workforce

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