Opening Doors to People Who've Served Their Time

BY Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza | February 28, 2022

Editor's note: This is an installment in a two-part series on hiring the formerly incarcerated. Read the companion story here, an inside look at learning job skills in prison. 

After Adam Garcia was laid off at the onset of the pandemic, he was painstakingly organized in his new job search. He identified ideal qualities in a company and in a job, he applied to ten jobs a day, and he researched and wrote briefs on his target companies to understand what they might offer in the way of a career. Garcia made it to the interview rounds, often final interviews. “But as soon as the background check comes up,” he said, “then I noticed demeanors, tones change, and doors are closed with very vague reasons. ‘We don’t think it’s a good fit. You just don't have any experience.’”

He knew what was happening. The prospective employers were discovering that he had a criminal record. In fact, Garcia had served a nearly 20-year sentence. “They’re getting a side of the story based upon what's said on a piece of paper,” he said, and not a picture of who he is now.

Garcia decided to change his approach. He recalled that in the interview for his first job after incarceration, the conversation had, by chance, given him the opportunity to talk about his record. “I was so nervous,” he said. “Laying it all on the table. [The interviewer] was shocked, to say the least. He contemplated for three minutes–this weird, uncomfortable silence for three minutes. He just said, ‘You know, what? The hell with it. I'm going to give you a shot.’”

So this time, rather than wait for the background check, he started proactively disclosing his record to potential employers. It made a difference. “When I pivoted my strategy to approaching it like that, that’s when the tone started to change. The companies that happened to reach out were actually companies that I was able to be vulnerable with.” After moving the background conversation to the beginning of the process, getting it out of the way so employers could focus on his skills and qualifications, Garcia ended up with six job offers. He accepted a job on the customer-experience team at Checkr, a company that performs background checks.

Garcia’s experience is emblematic of an increasingly open conversation about hiring people who have been incarcerated, driven in part by the economic necessity of tapping a huge prospective labor pool. More than 70 million Americans have a criminal record and 8 million have served time in prison, according to research by the Brennan Center for Justice. Yet a confluence of company policies, legal restrictions, and discrimination prevent capable people with criminal records from getting jobs.

After speaking candidly about his prison record to potential employers, Adam Garcia got six job offers (Photo courtesy of Adam Garcia)

Now many employers have begun to play a significant role in removing barriers to employment for these prospective workers, both within their organizations and in the U.S. overall. “Government policies are necessary, laws are necessary,” said Beth Avery, a senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project (NELP). “But I think you’re going to get the broadest change if employers are going along with it too.” Not only is it the right thing to do in terms of social justice, but this is a talent pool that’s diverse and qualified, said Michelle Kuranty, executive director and head of talent acquisition sourcing at JPMorgan Chase, which has adopted a policy of giving people with criminal backgrounds a second chance. “As the country continues to recover from the pandemic, businesses are adapting to economic conditions and resuming their search for skilled workers,” Kuranty told From Day One. “By reducing barriers to employment for justice-involved individuals, we will be able to get more people back to work more quickly.”

This represents a sea change for corporate America, where barriers to employment for people with criminal records are so great that many are forced to look elsewhere. “When individuals tend to come home and get jobs, it’s at small businesses or they become entrepreneurs,” said Keesha Middlemass, an associate professor of political science at Howard University and author of Convicted and Condemned: The Politics and Policies of Prisoner Reentry. “And most of these small companies are created by people who have been affected by the criminal justice system.”

A Crippling Level of Unemployment

In the U.S., the unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated people is almost five times higher than that of the general population, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. The rate for formerly incarcerated people is 27%, which, the organization says, is “higher than the total U.S. unemployment rate during any historical period, including the Great Depression.”

Unemployment is even higher at the intersection of criminal record and race, and highest at the intersection of criminal record, race, and gender. Formerly incarcerated Black women have an unemployment rate of 43.6%, the highest of any demographic slice. NELP’s Avery points out that barriers to hire are rooted deeply in racism. “Our criminal legal system over-criminalizes populations of color. Black people, Latinx people. So those folks have way more records, and then we see studies that when people of color have records, they’re also punished more harshly for having those records.”

The current labor shortage makes the opportunity gap even more stark. In December 2021, Reuters reported that there were 11 million open jobs in the U.S. Besides the 70 million Americans who have criminal records, NELP estimates that 700,000 people are released from incarceration every year. “It’s an untapped workforce,” said Middlemass.

The Movement to ‘Ban the Box’

A common obstacle in the application process is the checkbox that asks applicants if they have a criminal record, or “the box.” The Ban the Box campaign calls for for public- and private-sector employers to strike the question from applications. “The theory behind Ban the Box is that people will have an opportunity to introduce themselves, to demonstrate that they are worthy of being employed,” said Middlemass. “They're worthy of doing the job. They have the skills to do the job. They can present themselves versus an automatic rejection.”

So far, 35 states have banned the box for public sector jobs, and many private employers have jumped on board, according to NELP. This practice may prevent candidates from being disqualified at the application stage, but it does not prevent an employer from running a background check later in the hiring process.

Evidence suggests that banning the box is effective. The City of Durham and Durham County in North Carolina banned the box in 2011 for city and county positions. Between 2011 and 2014, “the proportion of people with criminal records hired by the City of Durham increased nearly sevenfold,” according to the Southern Coalition for Criminal Justice. The organization also reported that “96% of Durham County applicants with criminal records, who were recommended for hire prior to the criminal record check, were ultimately hired after the results of the record check revealed some criminal history.”

Even so, Middlemass is skeptical about that change being enough to sufficiently remove bias from the hiring process on a large scale. She believes that many companies need to take an even harder look at other early-stage filters that discriminate against applicants. For example, one study found that even “employers who do not conduct background checks are likely to avoid specific groups–namely, undereducated Black men–because they stereotype them as ex-offenders.”

“If companies really want to make a difference,” Middlemass said, “what they need to do is change their [applicant screening] algorithm, but also connect the person and what they’ve done since they've been released from prison. Make the time to figure out, when there is a crime, what is the connection between the crime and the job?”

For companies that want to remove barriers, banning the box is a good place to start. “That's the most obvious. That’s the low-hanging fruit,” NELP’s Avery said. “That’s the thing that’s screening people early in the process, so you get rid of that. That alone is not going to solve the problem.”

Redesigning the Evaluation Process

How can employers change the way they evaluate candidates? Andrew Glazier, the president and CEO of Defy Ventures, a nonprofit that runs entrepreneurial and job-skills programs for formerly incarcerated people, as well as training employers on fair-chance hiring, recommends the “nature/time/nature” framework. In this process, the employer considers the nature of the crime, the time elapsed since the crime, and the nature of the job, said Glazier.

Eaton, the industrial power-management company (total employees: 85,000), uses a system like this, said Stan Ball, the company’s VP and chief litigation counsel. He said that candidates are not asked to disclose criminal history during the application process. If a conditional offer of employment is made, a third-party agency runs a background check. The agency searches the previous seven years and looks only for crimes that may be related to the position. “And even at that point, it’s not an automatic dismissal,” Ball told From Day One. “There is a conversation that will happen between the site HR manager and the particular job applicant to make sure it's an individualized decision.”

Ball stressed that no particular offense disqualifies a candidate. “What matters most to us is that we have an individualized, intelligent assessment of whether or not the particular offense actually even relates to the job issue.”

Reconsidering the Liability Issue

Many potential employers believe people with criminal records pose a larger risk to an employer than those who don’t, said Middlemass, who argued that all employees are a potential liability to an organization, regardless of criminal history, and that this is a calculation employers must make of all workers.

Candidates with criminal records tend to carry the burden of proof that they will not be a liability, but it’s difficult to prove a negative, of course, and Avery believes the responsibility should be flipped. “The employer needs to be able to show that a person's record is truly indicative of a likelihood of something happening, something being recent and relevant, before they’re screening someone else because of their record.”

In fact, data indicates the employees with criminal records in some cases fare better than those without. A study of 1.3 million military enlistees found that ex-felons are promoted more quickly and to higher ranks than other enlistees. Another found that this demographic has much longer tenure and are less likely to voluntarily quit their jobs. Research at Johns Hopkins Hospital found ex-offenders have lower job turnover than non-offenders.

Changing the Legal System

Despite changes to employer policies, laws can still get in the way. In the heavily regulated financial sector, parts of the Federal Deposit Insurance Act prevent companies like JPMorgan Chase from hiring the candidates they’d like to.

The company has been vocal and proactive about its support for fair chance hiring. In April 2021, the banking company was a founding member of the Second Chance Business Coalition, whose members commit to fair chance hiring practices and policies. JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon and Eaton CEO Craig Arnold serve as co-chairs for the group, which includes dozens of household names including AT&T, McDonald’s, and Walmart.

JPMorgan endorsed the Clean Slate Act of 2021, which would create a record-clearing process and automatically seal some records of low-level crimes. Eaton, too, has challenged legal structures. Arnold is a member of the Business Roundtable’s subcommittee to advance racial equity and justice, which, among other things, identifies and promotes criminal-justice reforms and the removal of barriers to workforce reentry. Eaton’s Ball said the company rallies its corporate neighbors in Ohio, where the company has deep roots, to join the effort. “Can we get folks who have been on the bench historically–can we get them back in the game?”

Garcia, who now works for Checkr, said he wishes employers had a better understanding of the criminal-justice system–how it works, what it means to have a criminal record, and how easy it is for anyone to make mistakes that entangle them in the system.

How to Get Started With Systemic Change

Overhauling talent-acquisition practices to include fair-chance hiring can feel daunting, according to one person helping to lead the process, Jen Gudgel, global director of diversity, equity, and inclusion for automotive supplier BorgWarner.

Gudgel, who acknowledges that she is new to fair-chance hiring, is moving enthusiastically with the support of leadership behind her. She began by building an internal task force and studying second-chance hiring practices, which included taking the Society of Human Resource Management’s Getting Talent Back to Work course. Next, her team created a communication plan to educate HR leaders on the vision for the project and worked with their legal team to review hiring practices, which vary by state according to local laws.

Gudgel said the hardest part, at this point, is helping her colleagues understand this isn’t an initiative that will produce instant results. “How do I get from where I am today to where they are?” she said of other companies further along in the process. “What we’ve realized is we just have to take the first step, and then we’ll take the next step.”

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a freelance reporter based in Richmond, VA, who writes about workplace culture and policies, hiring, DEI, and issues faced by women. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Fast Company, and Food Technology, among others, and has been syndicated by MSN and The Motley Fool.


Are You an HR Leader Who Can’t Say No? Then Maybe This Book Is for You

If setting boundaries is the right thing for your mental health, then why is it so hard to do? With all the demands on HR professionals in recent years, burnout has become a major problem. With good timing, author and playwright Kara Cutruzzula has come along with Do It (Or Don’t): A Boundary-Creating Journal, the third in her series on personal motivation. The book is rich with insights about why we hestitate to say no, how to do it gracefully, and when to know when it’s probably the best answer. In an email interview, From Day One asked her about the key lessons in her new book: Q. Why are we afraid of saying no? Is it mostly about being superstitious about missing an opportunity, or FOMO, or just not wanting to hurt people's feelings?We don’t say no to certain opportunities or people because it’s either uncomfortable, we don’t want to disappoint someone, or we think our future selves are magically less busy than our present-day selves, and a new obligation will somehow be manageable. These are valid reasons! Yet I would argue, in nearly all cases, the few minutes of feeling itchy and anxious before saying “no” are vastly preferable to giving a reluctant “yes” and then feeling resentful. It's almost always kinder to give a quick “no” than a half-hearted “yes.”Q: What are the hardest invitations to say no to?A person with a full calendar says “no” faster than a person who can fit almost anything into their schedule. Sometimes we accept invitations or opportunities because that specific time slot might be open at the moment, but we shouldn’t consider our time as “free” simply because an offer is extended. Getting clear on where you prefer to spend your time before the invitation comes your way makes it easier to deliberate what’s worth that time–or isn’t.Q. Many people in the HR profession have been suffering burnout after all they’ve endured while leading people through crisis after crisis since 2020. Do you have any advice for them about not trying to solve everyone’s problems–or how to set limits?Can you look at what is actually being asked of you, and then at what you have decided to give? We all want to achieve and, often, overachieve, and can forget that going above and beyond is not sustainable. Giving exactly what you are able to give in the moment can be the answer, even if that changes day to day or week to week. It’s kinder to yourself and the people you are trying to serve.Q. Being a good team player is highly valued in business these days, but how can workers set limits and still be regarded as a collaborative colleague?Communication is the holy grail. If you’re not going to be available one afternoon, tell someone. If your colleague’s non-urgent 8 a.m. Slack messages cast a pall over your morning, tell them–or don’t look at the messages until you’re ready to respond. Respect your own boundaries and remember that you have a choice over what you let into your day. And when you are working with a colleague, give them your full attention–the goal is to continue giving an unequivocal “yes” to wherever you are and whatever you’re working on at the moment, so that we can all do our best work together.Q. It’s easy to say yes quickly, but harder to craft a suitable no. What’s your advice about not procrastinating with an answer?Faster is kinder. Consider all the times you’ve reached out to someone with a favor or request. Getting a quick “no” might sting for a moment–then you move on. Waiting to hear back, however, ratchets up anxiety and can affect your other plans. If you know it's a “no,” say so right away. And if you're debating whether it's a “no,” here’s a hint: It probably should be.Q. Could you give us an example or two of ways to say no, but in a way that doesn't close the door on a relationship?We all have many things on our plates, and sometimes it’s fine to simply say that: I'm sorry that it’s a busy time right now so I won’t be able to join you / take advantage of this opportunity / work together on this project, but I hope you’ll keep me in mind of the future. That’s it.I also love to recommend other people, friends, and colleagues for opportunities. While you're politely declining, take one minute to think, “Do I know anyone who would love to say ‘yes’ to this?,” and then pass along their name. Share the wealth.Q. A lot of times we might say yes to an opportunity, then have regrets as the obligation approaches, but then it turns out we’re glad we did it for reasons we didn’t expect. Does this familiar sequence of emotions tell us anything about how to figure out how to make decisions?This happens so often! We dread going to an event yet meet a new and interesting person or make a business contact. Though I’d say this happens rarely. There are events and opportunities that pull us in, and those that push us away. If you have to force yourself to do something, and it goes well–fantastic! But was it really worth the days of “Should I cancel? Can I rope in someone else to go with me?” Why settle for that feeling, when we have the option to actually look forward to what’s on our calendars, instead of hoping a few items will magically disappear?Q. You describe in the book how to set boundaries by establishing the priorities you want to fence off from interference. What’s a good way to get started thinking about that?In recent months, I found myself blaming a few culprits as reasons why I wasn’t “doing what I wanted to do.” But when I looked at the boundaries I had created–or rather hadn't–around certain projects, I noticed there were zero fences or borders. My day would get chopped up into slivers by others, and it was entirely my fault. I was boundary-less. So you must start by answering the question: Where do I actually want to spend my time? Chunk off a section of your day, whether that’s 15 minutes or four hours, and actually make it a priority. Your boundaries will become a lot easier to maintain.Q. Does it help to make some commitments for yourself that you just won’t allow to be interfered with, like an appointment with a friend, therapist, or physical trainer? How does that pay dividends larger than the appointment itself?Author and playwright Kara Cutruzzula (Photo courtesy of the author)When we go to the dentist, we’re at the mercy of the dentist. Your time becomes your dentist’s time. But you can and should treat commitments to yourself with similar diligence. This isn’t about being harder on yourself. It’s the opposite: you are giving yourself the same focus and concentration as you would someone else. They’re worth it, but you’re worth it too. Q. People flake out on other people all the time, but you offer guidelines on how to “flake with grace.” Why is this OK to do, and an example of how to do it?Flaking is sometimes unavoidable, but there are ways to make it hurt less. Do it quickly, and do it with kindness. The most uncomfortable part of flaking isn’t saying, “Sorry I can’t do this after all,” but rather the billowing silence that preambles the flaking. When you know you can’t follow through, just be honest and tell the other person right away. Q. To be good at boundary-tending, one needs to respect other people’s boundaries as well. Your book offers some good advice about making the now-notorious request to “pick someone’s brain.” What should we keep in mind when asking someone for that kind of favor?Imagine a person texts you and asks if you'd like to go to a concert somewhere in a nearby state at some point in the future. They don’t explain the type of music or when or where; it's a vague, open-ended question. You wouldn’t know how to respond because you don’t have details. The same thing happens when you ask to “pick someone’s brain.” The other person doesn't have enough information to respond with a “yes” or “no,” which is why so many brain-picking requests are met with silence or long-delayed responses. So get specific! Do the work for them. What do you actually want to know? Why might they have the answer to your questions? Layer in these details in your request upfront and the person on the other end will be able to evaluate their own boundaries–and give you their own definitive yes or no.Q. How does this new book fit into your trilogy of books?Do It For Yourself is designed to help you work through a big project with reflective prompts and strategies on getting started and overcoming obstacles. Do It Today has more intensive activities like embracing percolation rather than productivity, and sharing the gifts that only you have to share. Do It (or Don't) is pinpointing a major issue: the feeling in our lives that there is too much to do and not enough time in which to do all of it. It encourages you to draw new lines around your time and energy to, ultimately, make it easier to do your most meaningful work.Q. And finally, we all need to rest. But sometimes, it’s complicated. What’s your advice about being more deliberate about this?Honestly, I’m bad at resting! I just worked for most of the weekend. But giving yourself an end date is always helpful. Maybe this is a busy period of your life and you have to accept that. Yet there is always some time on the horizon that you can look forward to–maybe it’s next quarter, or next year or, miraculously, next weekend. Build that into your schedule as downtime and be as strict with that boundary as you are with your other boundaries.Steve Koepp is From Day One’s chief content officer.(Featured image by MicrovOne/iStock by Getty Images)

Stephen Koepp | September 19, 2023

The Great Resignation Is Over. Will Employers Take Workers for Granted?

As the months of 2023 have ticked by, the Great Resignation has quietly lost something: its greatness. The worker resignation rate in June fell to 2.4%, essentially returning to where it was in June 2019. For employers who had been in a war for talent, the dramatic lack of turnover has brought welcome relief. But what does that mean for workers, who in 2020-22 enjoyed a wealth of new benefits, job flexibility, and employer concern about their well-being? Will employers start taking workers for granted?While HR experts say that most employers won’t be inclined to turn the clock back to 2019, workers will see a more miserly approach. In terms of total rewards, you could call it the Great Moderation. “Employee retention at all costs–in terms of very high salaries; PTO and other employee perks–is over,” Janine Yancey, CEO of the corporate-culture platform Emtrain, told From Day One. While she believes that job flexibility and pay equity are here to stay, “we’re moving into a time of scarcity, not abundance, which impacts the employee experience.”The Great Resignation’s obituary was written earlier this month, when the management professor who coined the term in 2021, Anthony Klotz, told Fast Company, “I believe the Great Resignation has largely come to an end.” Added Klotz, who is now a professor at University College London’s School of Management: “The backlog of quitting has certainly cleared, as has the turnover contagion and tight labor market it caused in its wake. People who had pandemic epiphanies and planned life pivots have enacted them; and in some cases, boomeranged back to what they were doing before.”Why They’re StayingEmployee surveys indicate that workers are motivated to stay in their jobs by a mixture of caution and the need for a calm stretch of time. The massive layoffs early in the pandemic, followed by the wave of austerity-inspired layoffs in the last year, have made workers less inclined to be job-hopping if they trust their situation.At the same time, they are overdue for some R and R for the sake of their sanity. “We are now in a time when stability and routine are supporting mental-health needs as many recover from the shock of unplanned life/work changes,” Laura Sewell, EVP of North American HR for the IT services consultancy Avanade, told From Day One. “It has only been in the past 12 to 18 months that more and more people have begun planning vacations, events, and other activities which were put on hold during the pandemic. As such, having access to paid time off through their employer offers them both the time they need and the financial backing to finally take those trips and plan the events. And you are less likely to switch employers when you are planning big, fun things outside of work in your personal life.”The incentive to switch jobs for higher compensation has eased as well, Sewell notes. “While the war for talent was raging, employees could often get 20%+ more by leaving their employer to join a competitor. Job seekers today may not find that same opportunity for significant increase in earnings, thus reducing a motivating factor for making that move.”Why Employers Are Tightening UpThe combination of high interest rates and slow economic growth have inspired companies to clamp down on spending as well as hiring. “2023 has been the year of massive downsizing across the board,” observes Yancey. “Capital is scarce and capital fuels business growth, so that will impact job growth. Businesses are focused on showing profitability first and foremost.”How will the austerity mindset affect employee benefits? That issue has caused tension between finance departments and HR leaders who just recently had been working overtime to create new incentives to attract and retain employees, including programs to support worker well-being and family caregiving. “We’re in this constant battle with finance,” said Ken Wechsler, VP of total rewards at Akamai Technologies, in a recent From Day One webinar on employee benefits. “We’re fighting for it, and I guess my colleagues on this call will also fight it. We might not get as much moving forward, but we will fight.”Benefits leaders are finding that they need to justify spending much more than they did in the recent past, said Todd Cowgill, VP of global rewards for Equinix, a digital-infrastructure company. “If you cannot tell what the return on investment of your program is, you will lose that program,” he said in the webinar. “You have to understand what the company as a business gets because of the program, what it costs, and what it gets back.”Which Workplace Improvements Will EndurePart of the reason for low turnover right now, Avanade’s Sewell points out, is the enhanced working conditions that were inspired by the hardships of the pandemic. “Over the past three years, inclusion and well-being have rocketed to the top of our people priorities. With this increased focus, employees are feeling better supported at work, have access to more resources and benefits to take care of themselves, and in general, most have greater flexibility in how and where they get their work done.”Despite well-publicized efforts by some major employers, notably in finance, to bring workers back to the office for a majority of the workweek, job flexibility is a value that has become well-embedded in the expectations of most workers. Asserted Emtrain’s Yancey: “I believe the need for job flexibility is here to stay and employer's obligation to create jobs with pay equity and a healthy, inclusive work culture is here to stay.”So is the inclination for workers to negotiate their terms. “Everything is in play now­–things I had never even thought of when it comes to total rewards,” said Akamai’s Wechsler. “We give employees the choice of where they want to work, and 90% of them have said they want to work from home. They’ll self-select. We make the effort to do things in the office a lot–but now a lot means quarterly. We know that most will not want to come, and some folks will want to attend an event because they get to go to the office.”  Trying to Reach an EquilibriumWhile turnover may be low at the moment, forward-looking employers know that future job shortages driven by an aging population and new attitudes toward work mean that they can’t forget the lessons learned during the Great Resignation. “It’s a new culture of work,” behavioral scientist Laurel McKenzie told Fast Company’s AJ Hess. “No one’s staying at organizations for years and years. The new culture of work is that people are willing to leave and find something better. There’s not a sense of loyalty to organizations anymore. People are more focused on taking care of themselves and finding organizations that will enable that.”Avanade’s Sewell says her company keeps close tabs on employee-engagement surveys to pick up on trends in employee sentiment. “We take nothing for granted. There will always be cycles, which can often be unpredictable. Our goal is to maintain the hearts and minds of our employees through all of the ups and downs and be prepared for what is ahead. By building loyalty now, we are creating a stronger foundation for whatever wave comes next.”In a book to be published next month, The Retention Revolution: 7 Surprising (and Very Human!) Ways to Keep Employees Connected to Your Company, workplace strategist and bestselling author Erica Keswin calls for a new paradigm in thinking about the relationship between workkers and employers. “The time is now to reconsider everything we know about the employee journey and why linear thinking is being replaced by the more human reality of cycles, revolving doors, and dynamic change.” Steve Koepp is From Day One’s chief content officer. 

Stephen Koepp | August 16, 2023

Older Workers and Technology: How They Approach It With a Different Mindset

Karen Fleshman is a 54-year-old CEO of a small workshop-facilitation company based in the world’s tech capital, the San Francisco Bay Area. Recently, a potential client approached her about creating some anti-harassment videos, but before they would award her company the contract, they wanted to see a sample. Fleshman’s expertise is content, not tech. To win the job, she would need to deliver both.“I was like, ‘Oh God, this is not something I can record on my phone,” said Fleshman. “I’m really going to have to work to make this look up to their standards.” Video creation and artificial intelligence is new territory for Fleshman—for the project, she’s teaching herself Descript, Loom, StreamYard, and—but resourcefulness comes naturally. “I’m not the most technologically proficient person to have walked the planet,” she said. “But I am a very creative person, and I’m also a very strategic person.”Fleshman is careful to not live down to the stereotypes about people in her age bracket when it comes to technological proficiency. “There is the assumption that I won’t be technologically proficient, so I’m trying to not play into the stereotype that I’m going to ask for help because I’m frustrated,” Fleshman told From Day One. “I try to do what Millennials do and look for a YouTube tutorial.”Most mid- and late-career workers know the preconceived notions counting against them: bad with tech, slow to learn, resistant to change. A survey by found that people 45 and older commonly cite their age as one of the most significant barriers to getting hired. If indeed “every company now is a tech company,” like the pundits declare, where does that leave older workers who are especially susceptible to the ageist stereotype that the older you are, the fewer tech skills you have and are capable of learning?Karen Fleshman, CEO of a workshop-facilitation company in the Bay Area (Photo courtesy of Karen Fleshman; featured photo by Gorodenkoff/iStock by Getty Images)  In some cases, Gen Zers and Millennials do outperform their older peers when it comes to tech. There’s data to support this. In 2021, the Urban Institute found that, generally, adults aged 50 and older have fewer digital skills than those under age 50, though the gap is not particularly wide. Simple exposure is likely to blame. If Gen Xers wrote their term papers at terminals in the university computer lab, Gen Zers dictated theirs to a phone that autocorrected their spelling and generated perfect MLA citations. “People say, ‘I want to hire digital natives because they’re more adaptable and more skilled with tech,’ but I’ve never seen any empirical evidence that that’s true,” said Paul Leonardi, a professor of technology management at UC-Santa Barbara and co-author of The Digital Mindset: What It Really Takes to Thrive in the Age of Data, Algorithms, and AI. Yet in some cases, older workers aren’t given the opportunity to learn new tech skills because it’s assumed they either don’t want to or aren’t capable.  With the quantity and variety of technology available to the average consumer growing relentlessly, it’s becoming harder for anyone to be a true expert on the innumerable choices at hand. “So many of these technologies are new for everyone, not just the older folks in the workforce,” said Loren Blandon, the global head of learning and development for advertising agency VMLY&R. “We’re all on this learning curve together, so from that perspective, there’s an even playing field.”If more seasoned workers express resistance to new tools, it’s not on stubborn principle, but because they’ve seen tech trends before, said Heather Tinsley-Fix, a senior advisor at AARP, which offers a multigenerational skill-building platform. How many promising new ideas have been adopted only for them to be made obsolete or replaced just as quickly? “Whereas a younger worker who’s 20 years old, this might be their first or second change of processor platform,” Tinsley-Fix observed.Older workers pump the brakes out of judicious caution while “young workers charging ahead, and it looks like younger workers are better at this,” said Leonardi.The distorted notion that older workers look unkindly at change can do a lot of damage to a well-developed career. According to the study, hiring managers said that reluctance to learn new technologies is the No. 1 characteristic most likely to limit the success of job seekers 45 and older. No. 2 is the inability to learn new skills. In addition, hiring managers tend to think of workers under age 45 as being more “application-ready,” that they have more relevant experience and are a better culture fit.But those same managers fail to support their own beliefs. The same survey found that when asked about overall performance, 87% of hiring managers said that their older workers perform as well or better than their younger peers.Given the penalties for being “old” in the workplace, mid- and late-career workers worry about looking like the stereotype. “There’s this internalized ageism, where they’re afraid that they’re going to be perceived as slow and not able to do it better or fast enough,” said Tinsley-Fix. “If I don’t know how to do something on, say, LinkedIn, I will go to someone and ask them to teach me, but I will never admit it openly because I’m mid-career, and I don’t want people to know that I don’t know.”Kyra Sutton, who teaches at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, said the ability to use or learn new skills isn’t usually what divides the generations, it’s the format. Sutton is currently surveying her students about their learning preferences, and the unofficial results indicate that “those under 25 prefer mechanisms like TikTok and YouTube. People that are 45 and older still want technology, but they want it consumed in a different way. TED Talks or podcasts are very popular among that group.” Blandon at VMLY&R flagged something similar. “I think learning styles are more personality-based than age-based, but if I had to say where age differences emerge, it would be in attention span. For our entry-level folks, we need to come at them with short-form video.”Leonardi notes that motivation can also vary across generations. Older workers, he’s found, have less patience for learning things they aren’t interested in. Employers may be wise to have senior team members take on new tech that corresponds to a totally new skill they’re interested in learning. “Let your older workers surprise you,” Leonardi said. “Give them the opportunity to use a new tool not for the sake of using a new tool, but to expand their own knowledge, and they will have the motivation.”For many, interest is self-generated. “There have been times in this when I’ve become incredibly frustrated,” said Fleshman, the Bay Area entrepreneur. The video tools she’s teaching herself don’t integrate with each other, and the standards for video production are exceedingly high. “Because we have all these tools at our disposal, the standards of what things should look and feel like are so high. And then it’s me and my laptop.”Why, then, didn’t she just hire out the work? Wouldn’t it be easier to write the content herself and hire experts to do the video production? Because it’s new, she said. It could land her this new client, and now she’s considering recording other sessions and gating them behind a paywall. “I wanted to develop a new skill, and I wanted to see what these different things are capable of doing. I’m doing this on contract for another company, but I can apply this to my own. I’m excited about that possibility.” Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a freelance journalist and From Day One contributing editor who writes about work, the job market, and women’s experiences in the workplace. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Quartz at Work, Fast Company, Digiday’s Worklife, and Food Technology, among others.   

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza | July 26, 2023