Seniority Considered Harmful

Technical hiring in Silicon Valley aspires to be a meritocracy, but anyone who has looked at the data knows that there is rampant discrimination caused by both conscious and unconscious bias.

Most of the discussion about discrimination has focused on gender and race. But we also need to address age discrimination.

Many people blame age discrimination on Silicon Valley’s youth culture. There’s a myth of young entrepreneurs, and too many of Silicon Valley’s celebrities hold it as an article of faith that “young people are just smarter” and drive innovation.

But that’s only part of the problem.

Silicon Valley companies, at least in my experience, practice overt age discrimination. Specifically, they hold older candidates to a higher bar — which is the textbook definition of age discrimination. Many companies advertise positions for recent college graduates, despite a warning from the EEOC that doing so is illegal age discrimination. And even more companies evaluate candidates differently based on their years of experience.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having a higher bar for more senior roles. But that’s not at all the same thing as having a higher bar for more senior — and, let’s not mince words, older — candidates. And yet that’s a standard practice.

I believe that most companies make an unstated assumption that older candidates should only be considered for senior roles. There are older candidates who only want senior roles. But companies shouldn’t impose that constraint on candidates. There’s no reason an older candidate shouldn’t be able to apply for the same position (and the same compensation) as a new college graduate. Age should be neither a qualification nor a disqualification.

A more nuanced form of age discrimination is to set higher expectations for older candidates, while assuming younger candidates have greater potential to learn and grow. People do vary in their potential. But extrapolating this potential from age is simplistic and discriminatory.

Think of a candidate’s potential is as a source of variance in estimating the candidate’s value to the company. As candidates realize their potential through experience, they reduce that variance. For some candidates, that lowers their expected value. But on average experience should preserve expected value while reducing variance. And a hiring process should be trying to maximize expected value while discounting for variance — which should, on average, favor older candidates.

If Silicon Valley truly aspires to be a meritocracy, all of us have to confront the ugly reality of discrimination in our hiring processes. A good start would be to remove overt age discrimination from those processes.

High-Class Consultant.

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