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Recruitment and Retention of Older Workers: Considerations for Employers

Introduction

The National Center on Workforce Development/Adult (NCWD/A), funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), undertook a one-year project that examined practices and strategies implemented by U.S. companies seeking to recruit and retain older workers. This brief presents themes that emerged from phone conversations with employees at 18 companies in 13 states.

Five of those companies subsequently participated in more in-depth, in-person visits. NCWD/A staff held phone conversations with human resource or diversity program representatives; during in-person visits, researchers had discussions with a wide range of informants, from company leadership to frontline supervisors/managers and older workers themselves.

This brief presents the motivational factors that drove companies to focus on older workers, the cultural contexts of businesses that have undertaken these practices, and the range of recruitment and retention practices and initiatives they used. Researchers offer suggestions to employers on the relevance of the findings to their own workplace practices, initiatives, and cultures.

Impetus for Developing Recruitment and Retention Strategies

Several themes emerged to explain the reasons why companies developed and initiated strategies to recruit and retain older workers.

  • Companies responded to demographics. Along with overall labor force changes, companies examined internal demographics and responded to the needs found there.
  • Older worker practices were part of a wider initiative or initiatives. Companies reported that initiatives around diversity and inclusion improved the work lives of all employees.
  • Employers perceived older workers as better workers. The traits companies cited included reliability, long-term commitment to the company, and strong work ethic.
  • Companies emphasized a multigenerational workforce. Such diversity lent complimentary strengths, potential for mutual learning, and increased understanding across age groups.
  • Companies valued older workers for their expertise and knowledge. Organizations devised innovative approaches to retaining that knowledge base with attractive accommodations or by luring mature experts back into a working relationship.
  • Older workers were a “good fit” with job and culture. Companies found that older workers were uniquely suited for positions because of the company’s atmosphere, the type of jobs available, or the skills and attributes being sought.
  • Hiring and retaining older workers made good business sense. Companies were less apt to acknowledge that they engaged in recruitment and retention practices because such endeavors were morally right. They were more inclined to note that it solved a corporate problem (such as high turnover) or broadened the company’s market potential.

Cultural Context

The culture and environment of the businesses provided the context for many of the recruitment and retention strategies they developed and implemented. This context was defined by the following components.

  • Strong values. Strong values drove companies, providing a framework for establishing practices that fully supported workers.
  • Multi-level dedication and loyalty. Respondents spoke of feeling a sense of partnership with their companies.
  • A sense that employees were valued. Respect, a caring atmosphere, and recognition for performance led workers to feel that they were valued and contributing members of their organization.
  • Open communication. Employees could approach managers and leadership, express their views, and make sure that their voices were heard.
  • Independence and autonomy. When companies valued their employees, they gave workers the freedom and autonomy to perform their roles effectively, which in turn led to job satisfaction among older workers.
  • Opportunities for socialization and community involvement. Social time fostered relationships that led to better teamwork, higher productivity, and stronger morale.
  • Teamwork (an essential trait). Respondents referred to one another as being part of a team or family that partnered and contributed to a common goal, or solved a business-related problem.
  • A low-pressure and relaxed atmosphere. Respondents described this type of culture as being a good fit for older workers and matching their personal desires.
  • Multigenerational issues. Employers were just starting to understand the perceptions and stereotypes of younger and older workers, and to consider these issues when supporting different generations to work together effectively.

Recruitment Strategies

Several companies took pains to underscore that they by no means targeted older workers for recruitment; rather, the ultimate goal was to find the best worker for the job. Others described the emphasis on older workers as altogether informal and even unintended. This section presents some recruitment strategies.

  • Employee referral. Word-of-mouth among employees and their associates was an effective, informal way that businesses recruited older workers. When employees were satisfied with and felt valued by their companies, they passed on this information to their personal connections. This communication often resulted in good matches between new employees and the culture of the organization.
  • Collaboration with community partners. Businesses used collaborations with organizations that specifically targeted older populations, such as AARP, to build their pool of potential candidates. Companies also found local Offices on Aging an excellent resource for new employees. Some offices kept an active list of seniors searching for employment.
  • Recruitment from the volunteer pool. Particularly for health care organizations, the volunteer pool, often comprised of seniors, was fertile ground for recruiting new workers. Volunteers tended to know each other well, especially in smaller organizations; word-of-mouth among them was also an effective tool for attracting older employees.
  • Formal recruitment programs among businesses. Only one company in this study had a formal recruitment program aimed at older workers, targeting areas where seniors typically congregated such as libraries, community centers, and churches. This program, however, was just one example of targeted recruitment that ensured a diverse and multigenerational labor supply that responded to the clients' needs.
  • Tapping into retiree associations. Keeping in contact with retirees through associations helped keep the lines of communication open in case retirees wanted to return to the workforce in some capacity and organizations had unmet needs. Health care organizations’ “float pool” of retirees was a good example of the flexible opportunities available to retired nurses should they decide to continue working on a temporary basis.
  • Placement agencies focused on seniors. Businesses could use a variety of organizations to help recruit senior workers. However, the majority of businesses in this research used other recruitment methods to reach out to older workers.

Retention Strategies

With the exception of the existence of formal phased retirement programs, each of the retention strategies uncovered was universal in nature—that is, available and useful for all employees or potential. Older workers took advantage of several initiatives or practices that facilitated retention.

  • Phased or modified retirement options. Companies realized that they continued to need the expertise of mature workers, and granted them the option of a gradual transition to retirement. This ensured that older workers continued to engage with the company and passed on institutional knowledge in a standardized and equitable way.
  • Job flexibility. Companies adjusted employees’ work schedules and responsibilities in an effort to encourage older workers to remain on the job. Options included telecommuting, compressed schedules, job-sharing situations, and seasonal employment. Additionally, in many cases workers were able to retrain into different positions or modify their roles to reflect changing needs and preferences.
  • Comprehensive benefits packages. Businesses extended benefits beyond health insurance and 401(k) plans to include comprehensive family supports, wellness programs, investment and personal counseling, and other informal “perks” to support employees’ needs. These types of programs conveyed the message that employees were viewed holistically and offered support in all aspects of their lives.
  • Professional growth and development opportunities. Businesses supported programs that employees valued, such as formal training programs or informal mentoring opportunities between employees. Companies placed a high value on “growing their own” and strove to offer opportunities for professional development so that employees would stay and grow into leadership positions. These organizations had a clear emphasis on investing in employees.
  • Other workplace accommodations. As workers aged, the physical requirements of a job could jeopardize both an employee’s health and productivity. Especially in the health care field, companies developed initiatives to reduce stress on employees’ bodies (such as guidelines, practices, and special equipment for transporting and lifting patients) in order to ensure the health, safety, and retention of staff.

Considerations for Employers

The employers in this study were chosen because of their forward-thinking approaches to recruiting and supporting workers. They provided insightful examples of innovation that other employers could benefit from. Drawing from these findings, researchers offer the following considerations to employers as they examine their own workplace cultures, policies, initiatives, and informal practices.

Many of the motivational factors that drove the development and implementation of these practices apply to all businesses.

The picture of the U.S. labor market shows an increasingly diverse workforce, with older workers prominently included. As the population ages and labor shortages mount, the innovations and insights these participants shared will become the necessary modus operandi of companies large and small across the U.S. The findings of this project suggest that employers are willing to innovate around diversity in the workforce and move towards universal human resource strategies if they are motivated to do so. In short, companies want to do the right thing, as long as “the right thing” advances their bottom-line company goals. Vital benefits to employers include finding solutions to longstanding corporate problems and expanding their market potential.

Creating a workplace culture that cultivates and stimulates the development of such strategies is critical.

The type of culture that welcomes older workers benefits all workers. In that sense, the culture of an organization is a universal and unifying element that can create a positive environment for many different types of workers. A supportive work culture was key in establishing many other practices that helped workers feel valued. Businesses that recognized employees’ contributions found that these efforts helped to retain older workers. Staff often said that company values mirrored their own and resulted in long-term company loyalty.

Employers can create opportunities for employees to actively participate and communicate by establishing subcommittees of different types and levels of workers, holding periodic issue forums where employees can bring up concerns and challenges, and cultivating an open-door policy among leaders and managers. Employers can also ensure opportunities for employee collaboration through team-based activities, mentoring, and social events. Social events such as employee appreciation activities, retreats, shared meals/breaks, and holiday parties can improve overall employee morale and help develop ties among workers.

These strategies are clearly universal in nature.

The enlightened practices articulated in this study reflect an increasingly universal approach to recruitment and retention. The range of retention strategies made it especially evident that many types of employees, including older workers, accessed and benefited from the initiatives created. Universalizing the thinking and practices around employment promoted the hiring and appropriate support of all workers. These employer initiatives offered many of the same attributes, solutions to embedded problems of turnover and unmotivated workers, and a “good business sense” approach to crafting an organization that supports a diverse workforce.

Assessing the level of universality of one’s own recruitment and retention strategies is a crucial starting point for employers. Companies should consider whether policies aimed at specific groups can benefit the larger workforce. When companies can understand that what they are already doing can benefit new hires, they can focus on the skills and strengths of new applicants without considering what special considerations may be necessary for them to be successful. Businesses also need to take stock of the policies and practices that they have in place and strive to implement more universal approaches that may benefit the majority even though they are not necessarily targeted to one population.

Consider the transferability of these strategies to other target groups.

Many of these recruitment and retention strategies parallel strategies used for other populations. Employers can begin by recognizing and applying existing strategies to other groups. For example, the companies in this study relied on the peer connections of their current workforce to access new employees. Employers can encourage their workers to identify and utilize their personal and professional networks to find and recruit job seekers who would be a good fit for the organization. In addition, the community partners and placement agencies companies used to recruit older workers can be effective for recruiting candidates from other diverse backgrounds as well.

To truly address their future needs and impending labor market shortages, businesses must expand their thinking beyond retaining their current workforce and focus on recruiting new members into the workforce—those that can add diversity, longevity, and stability, helping companies accomplish their long-term goals. Within their own companies, employers should require diversity awareness training to ensure that their recruitment taps all potential candidates.

Reflect on the advantages of hiring from a diverse candidate pool.

The businesses in this study recognized the value that diversity brought to their organizations. They were successful partly because of the unique abilities, cultures, age groups, and individuals that constituted their employee base. A diverse workforce is often part of a strategic business plan; as such, specific recruitment efforts should tap all sources of available talent.

Employers can draw attention to the benefits and attributes of hiring from a diverse candidate pool by sharing stories in publications and forums, from one business to another. Sharing these stories from their own experiences, business to business, will help dispel the negative stereotypes about workers from diverse backgrounds that can keep employers from hiring them. It can also illuminate the reasons why these practices enriched and enhanced their workforce.

Conclusion

These 18 companies provided numerous examples of practices and initiatives that led to the successful recruitment and retention of older workers. The critical features of these initiatives can enable other employers to expand their thinking about their own workplace cultures and the recruitment and retention strategies they already have in place. Furthermore, findings from this project can stimulate the development of exemplary employment practices that meet the needs of a diverse workforce and business both.


The researchers wish to thank the research participants who made this project possible.

For more information, contact:

Sheila Fesko
Institute for Community Inclusion
UMass Boston
100 Morrissey Boulevard
Boston, Massachusetts 02125
617.287.4364 (voice); 617.287.4350 (TTY)
sheila.fesko@umb.edu

This document was developed by the National Center on Workforce and Disability (NCWD), based at Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Some of the material used was funded through the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy (grant number E-9-4-1-0071). The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the U.S. Department of Labor, nor does mention of tradenames, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Department of Labor.