Employers Mask Age Discrimination by Seeking “Digital Natives”

Thursday, May 07, 2015

A job advertising stating that a company is looking for a “digital native” might mean the firm is seeking someone with top computer skills. But it might also be something more pernicious—a way for an employer to discriminate against older applicants.


The term “digital native” is somewhat vague, but means basically someone who has always lived in a world with the Internet. That would make digital natives no older than 30 or so.


The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has ruled against companies who advertise for “recent graduates” and “young blood,” saying such ads violate federal laws barring employment discrimination affecting those older than 40. Now the EEOC is faced with deciding whether a posting for a digital native similarly discriminates against that class.


“The term ‘digital natives’ makes me cringe,” Ingrid Fredeen, an attorney and vice president of NAVEX Global, which provides ethics and compliance programs to large organizations, told Fortune. “This is a very risky area because we’re using the term that has connotations associated with it that are very age-based. It’s kind of a loaded term.” A job ad seeking digital natives, she added, implies that “only young applicants need to apply.”


That could prove to be trouble for companies such as car-sharing service Zipcar, advertising firm Wunderman and others. They’ve actively sought “digital natives” in their job ads.


Other attorneys also see the phrase as problematic. Christy Holstege, a civil rights attorney and feminist activist in California, told Fortune, “I don’t believe using ‘digital native,’ a generational term, as a job requirement would stand up in court. I think older individuals could definitely argue ‘digital native’ requirements are just a pretext for age discrimination. And since this employment practice uses age as a limiting criterion, the defense that the practice is justified by a reasonable factor other than age is unavailable.”


It’s also possible that corporate human resource departments are using the term because they think it’s the latest buzzphrase, just as “Internet-savvy” was a few years ago.


In any event, just the use of the phrase in a job posting is not likely to be enough to win a court case. Other factors, such as whether a company has any older workers, would also come into play. And if you do have a case, be prepared to stand in line. Fortune pointed out that age discrimination cases have gone from 15,785 in 1997 to 20,588 in 2014, an increase of 30%.

-Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

This Is the Latest Way Employers Mask Age Bias, Lawyers Say (by Vivian Giang, Fortune)

Help Wanted: Old Fogies Need Not Apply (by Patrick May, San Jose Mercury News)

Is it OK for Employers to Seek Out ‘Digital Natives’? (by Jacob Gershman, Wall Street Journal)


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