Does on-campus recruitment result in age discrimination against older workers?

Posted March 21, 2018 by


Many employers value building a pipeline of talent out of college and developing that talent into future leaders. Does this strategy imply embedded age discrimination? Two years ago, Steve Rabin, a 53-year-old CPA who unsuccessfully applied to work for PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP (“PwC”), filed an age discrimination lawsuit against PwC. If his lawyers are successful, the class action will collectively represent Rabin and all other unsuccessful PwC accountant applicants who were 40 years or older, from 2013 to the present. 

Legal case for age discrimination

According to Rabin’s lawyers, PwC discriminates against older applicants for accounting positions by primarily hiring through campus recruiting, not posting the roles on its website, not providing an alternative means to apply for applicants who are well out of college, focusing on attracting millennials and other young accountants, and forcing partners to retire by age 60.

If this proves true, PwC is violating federal and state laws including the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (CFEHA). Rabin’s lawyers have met with some success, including convincing the court that they may proceed under the ADEA even if they could not prove that PwC intended to discriminate, as that is enough if PwC’s recruitment program had the effect of discriminating against older workers. Lawyers like to call that disparate impact claims.

In my experience, employers view college recruitment as part of their overall talent strategy

I’ve been fortunate enough to have a fair amount of interaction with talent acquisition leaders from PwC as well as its main rivals of Ernst & Young, Deloitte, and KPMG. Not a single one of them has even implied a desire to discriminate against older workers.

In fact, I’ve had a number of discussions with folks at Ernst & Young that made it very clear to me that they want to go well beyond what they’re legally required to do–both because it is the right thing to do and it makes the most business sense. They look at their hiring and productivity data and can see that the more diverse and inclusive their workforce, the more productive their workforce. I don’t recall having the same discussions with anyone at PwC about that specific issue, but would be absolutely shocked if they felt otherwise.

That said, there is a HUGE difference between intending to discriminate and accidentally creating a recruiting program that has the effect of discriminating and that, to me, is really what the issue is here. If PwC (and therefore hundreds of other organizations) accidentally created a recruitment program that had the effect of illegally discriminating against older workers, then tens of thousands of PwC (and probably hundreds of thousands of employees of other organizations) benefited. On the flip side, perhaps millions paid the price by being shut out of those opportunities.

Related: Why and how diversity matters in the workplace

Danger of recruiting specifically for “young” applicants

Recruiters cannot say they are looking for young applicantsAt College Recruiter, we rarely run across employers who are trying to illegally discriminate against certain classes of people based upon their age, race, gender, sexual orientation, military service, disabilities, or other attributes. But that’s not to say it doesn’t happen. I personally have had several conversations over the past few years with employers or their employment advertising agencies who will say things like, “I’m looking to hire about 20, young salespeople”.

The use of the word “young” is typically shorthand for “early career” and we will resolve that problem by coaching them to not just talk that way, but to think that way. Sometimes, however, the person we’re talking with will correct us and tell us that they, in fact, are looking for young employees. There are times when that’s legitimate, such as when a military service is advertising for the enlistment of soldiers. But when the desire to hire young people is illegitimate and the employer is unwilling to correct not just their language but also their actions, then we pass on that business.

And before you think that it is only small, unsophisticated, idiotic organizations who overtly discriminate, that’s not the case. Facebook in 2013 had its hand caught in the cookie jar and settled a claim that it violated age discrimination laws by posting job ads with other publishers in which it indicated that it sought to hire recent college graduates. And they’re not alone in Silicon Valley. Google and Twitter are facing similar accusations.

When the desire to hire young people is illegitimate and the employer is unwilling to correct their language and their actions, then we pass on that business.

Change is coming, regardless of the legal outcome

Change is coming that should reduce age discriminationYet I’m optimistic that, whether or not these lawsuits force needed change, the needed change is coming. We’re seeing a rapidly increasing minority of employers looking at their productivity data rather than just at their sources of or cost per hire. Until a few years ago, some employers would tell us that they want to target certain schools because those were the schools at which they had hired the most people. That is circular thinking because those were the only schools they targeted. Other employers would focus on certain schools because those schools generated the most hires per dollar spent. What those employers failed to understand, at least at the time, was that if they hired someone for $100 who left after a day on the job and I hired someone for $1,000 who left after 10 years, my cost-per-hire may have been 10 times theirs, but my hire was so far more productive and my hiring strategy made far more sense.

Today, we’re seeing more and more employers like PwC, Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG, USAA, Amazon, Goldman Sachs, Lockheed Martin, and others modifying how they’re recruiting because they’re both collecting and using productivity data. Sure, they’re looking at factors such as cost per hire, and they should. But they’re also looking at where their most productive employees came from. Sometimes that means a specific school. Sometimes that means majors. Sometimes that means socio-economic background. And sometimes, for all I know, it means those who appreciate the humor of Monty Python. But the more employers focus on productivity rather than what school issued your degree and when the more those employers will align their recruiting practices with what is both good and with what makes good business sense.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Posted in Advice for Employers and Recruiters | Tagged Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,