Tafep-SPH roundtable

10 areas employers and older workers need to look at On the panel

Tafep-SPH roundtable panellists (clockwise from left): Dr Helen Ko, Mr Wong Keng Fye, Mr Ignatius Low, Mr Victor Mills, Mr Mohan Balagopal, Ms Helen Lim, Mr Olivier Legrand, Mr Alexander Melchers, Ms Shariffah Salmah Alsagoff and Mr Toh Yong Chuan. E
Tafep-SPH roundtable panellists (clockwise from left): Dr Helen Ko, Mr Wong Keng Fye, Mr Ignatius Low, Mr Victor Mills, Mr Mohan Balagopal, Ms Helen Lim, Mr Olivier Legrand, Mr Alexander Melchers, Ms Shariffah Salmah Alsagoff and Mr Toh Yong Chuan. Experts and employers looked at how older workers could be better integrated.ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

In the recent comedy film The Intern, Robert de Niro plays a retiree who returns to the workforce and must settle into a junior role at an e-commerce company where his boss is less than half his age. His struggle is one that an increasing number of older workers would find familiar as they cope with workplace ageism and try to keep themselves employable. At a roundtable held last Wednesday by the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep) and Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), experts and employers discussed how older workers could be better integrated into the workforce. Here are 10 suggestions by the panel.

1. SELF-LIMITING MENTALITY

One of the biggest obstacles older workers face is themselves.

Panellists said that on trying to re-enter the workforce, these workers are often intimidated by having to cope with technology and younger colleagues.

Dr Helen Ko said that older workers tend to "internalise" negative stereotypes about themselves. "They feel that because of their age, they are not able to cope as well as others younger than them."

Mr Victor Mills warned that there is a cultural tendency for older Singaporeans to hold themselves back on account of their age.

Redesigning job functions is not enough in the end. Employers should also overhaul workplace culture to make sure older workers feel welcome emotionally.

Citing the example of his mother-in-law, a Singaporean in her mid-70s, he said: "When she turned 55, she categorised herself as older and began the self-limitation process. She would think she couldn't do certain things - like wearing bright colours - because it wasn't appropriate for a lady of her age.

"The critical thing is that we shouldn't limit ourselves. I think that is the basis for how we strategise and how we look at opportunities."

2. RAISING EMPLOYABILITY

  • On the panel

  • • Ignatius Low, The Straits Times deputy editor, panel moderator

    • Toh Yong Chuan, The Straits Times senior manpower correspondent

    • Victor Mills, Singapore International Chamber of Commerce chief executive

    • Helen Lim, founding partner and chief executive of social enterprise Silver Spring

    • Alexander Melchers, general manager at Melchers GMBH & Co, Tafep board member

    • Wong Keng Fye, Maybank senior executive vice-president

    • Shariffah Salmah Alsagoff, Maybank compliance manager

    • Olivier Legrand, LinkedIn Asia-Pacific and Japan head of marketing solutions

    • Helen Ko, executive director of training consultancy Beyond Age

    • Mohan Balagopal, managing director of recruitment agency Gary & Pearl International

Older workers should also strive to remain employable, for example by undergoing more training and upgrading their skills.

"Plan your own career as if you were a company, and you were making a business plan," said Mr Olivier Legrand. "Don't expect someone else to do it on your behalf."

He added that social media tools such as LinkedIn are making it easier for people to manage their networks and identify what skills are required for the jobs they are in or aspire to have.

Mr Alexander Melchers said that the raising of the re-employment age ceiling from 65 to 67 does not mean older workers should take it for granted that they are entitled to re-employment.

"You are not allotted a job by society. You have a right to be re-employed under the circumstances that as a worker you perform, and that your company is also competitive. "

3. LEAVE AGE OUT OF THE HIRING PROCESS

For fairer hiring, employers should take age out of the equation and avoid making assumptions based on ageist stereotypes.

Mr Mills remarked that employers who practise "a lazy way of recruiting" tend to pre-judge older applicants.

Citing his own experience as an unemployed mature job-seeker for 22 months, he said: "If you are 40 and over, you are almost always bound to be told that you're too old, too expensive, too set in your ways, too over-qualified.

"You wouldn't even get an opportunity to challenge those assumptions at an interview. You'd be weeded out before that stage."

He said this results in many people being "left on the proverbial shelf, getting more and more depressed and disconnected because try as they might, they can't get through".

Mr Legrand said that LinkedIn, for example, does not require its users to state their age on their profiles. "We don't think it's necessarily relevant to the conversation."

4. RESTRUCTURE JOBS FOR SENIORS

Even if older workers make themselves more employable, companies also need to do their part in redesigning jobs to accommodate them.

Mr Toh Yong Chuan said that jobs in sectors such as retail or services necessarily demand longer working hours, or staying on one's feet. "These are structural difficulties that no amount of retraining can address," he said.

He said companies could consider shortening working hours or increasing part-time roles. "There is a need to restructure those jobs and that's something that falls squarely in the employers' court."

Senior staff could be encouraged to take on more consultative or mentoring positions. Mr Wong Keng Fye cited an example in which a head of global banking moved into another role as a senior banker so that his successor could take over.

He said: "On the part of the employee, sometimes, at a certain age, you may want to step back and, instead of the day-to-day running of the business, become a senior mentor. You're still of value to the organisation."

5. TECHNOLOGY A BOON, NOT BANE

Technology may seem to be a major limiting factor for older workers, but if used right, it could in fact make things easier for them to get to grips with their tasks.

Mr Toh said that, for instance, older workers can be taught that the pinch-and-expand function of iPads makes it easier to read fonts than on paper.

Involving older workers in the creation of workplace technology also makes it more likely for them to use the devices in their work.

Mr Melchers said that while nurses here are often thought to dislike using mobile devices in their roles, he encountered a Dutch nursing company which had mobile devices developed "by nurses, for nurses," which increased the take-up rate.

Mr Legrand suggested the practice of reverse mentoring, in which senior staff are paired up with young "digital natives". The latter help the former to become familiar with the Internet and social media, while benefiting at the same time from interacting with an experienced executive.

6. IMPROVE RELATIONS WITH YOUNGER COLLEAGUES

The idea of having to supervise an employee as old as your parents may be daunting for many young managers. Employers need to address such multi-generational differences, as do older and younger colleagues alike.

Dr Ko said that younger managers are often concerned that subordinates older than them will not be compliant with their authority.

Ms Shariffah Salmah Alsagoff, who reports to a supervisor 10 years younger than her, does not think the age gap is an issue. "If I think that person's competency is there, I have to respect that he has that skill and the authority that he commands, and I have to adapt to that."

Said Mr Mills: "It doesn't matter whether you're 20 or 60. Everybody wants the same thing, which is to be treated with respect."

7. MAKE SURE HR, RECRUITERS ARE AGE-FRIENDLY

The head of a firm may want to practise progressive hiring, but his or her subordinates may not get the memo. The HR managers who actually deal with potential applicants, as well as external recruiting agencies, may thus make ageist decisions that their leaders overlook.

Mr Mohan Balagopal recalled how an American multinational client, which was known to be quite forward-looking, told him to reject applicants for a managerial position who were in their 50s, as they had just promoted a department head who was 35. "Even among the more progressive companies, the HR can still be a bit more conservative."

Ms Helen Lim said many major employers could be outsourcing hiring to recruiters who do not themselves practise fair employment, which may go unnoticed by their clients. This is an area, she said, which Tafep should look into more.

8. ATTRACT AND RETAIN OLDER WORKERS

Employers that go the extra mile to accommodate older workers can create a positive signalling effect, thereby attracting more applicants from that demographic, and also reducing attrition across the company.

Mr Ignatius Low said that employers who redesign jobs and are seen to employ the elderly gain a positive social reputation. He suggested having a form of accreditation similar to CaseTrust that recognises companies which value older workers in such ways.

Mr Toh remarked that with such efforts, older employees are likely to reciprocate with loyalty. "They will not job hop, so you are done with problems of attrition."

Mr Melchers pointed out that by treating older workers better, companies send a positive signal to younger staff that they will be looked after if they stay on. "They gain a competitive edge, not just in recruiting more elderly workers, but also in retaining younger people."

9. RECOGNISE CONSUMERS ARE AGEING TOO

Even as the workforce ages, so does the general population. Employers, particularly in retail, manufacturing and services, should recognise that their consumers are also getting older and that they need to cater to them too.

Mr Melchers recounted how his mother's bank account was accidentally cancelled because she did not realise she had to go online and click a link to keep it active. "That was probably developed by a very young person who isn't aware that 80 per cent of their clients are 60, 70 years old," he said.

Older workers can give valuable input on how to engage their peers. Ms Lim discussed how SingHealth created the role of "healthcare ambassador" for older nurses, enabling them to work part-time or from home, checking up on elderly patients who have been discharged.

"You prevent them from going back to hospital again, because they know there's somebody caring for them," she said.

"It's a win-win outcome."

10. CHANGE WORKPLACE CULTURE

Redesigning job functions is not enough in the end. Employers should also overhaul workplace culture to make sure older workers feel welcome emotionally.

For example, said Mr Balagopal, they could check to see if their mature employees have someone to go for lunch with each day, or ask them about their relationship with their line manager.

Ms Lim stressed the need for welfare "champions" to go between older workers and their bosses, to make sure that the former's needs are looked after. Such measures, she said, are key to making sure temporary hiring subsidies like the Career Support Programme are more than a "band-aid or knee-jerk solution" to the problem of long-term unemployment for older PMEs.

She said: "At the end of the day, you need to redesign with heart. Every company needs to have a champion who recognises that one day, he will get old too."

  • This feature is brought to you by Tafep.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 03, 2015, with the headline '10 areas employers and older workers need to look at On the panel'. Print Edition | Subscribe