Just last week, Mary Madden, Senior Research Specialist of the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., issued a very insightful report entitled “Older Adults and Social Media: Social Networking Use Among Those Ages 50 and Older Nearly Doubled Over the Past Year” (http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Older-Adults-and-Social-Media.aspx). The report offers a look into a significant trend, as well as a timely reminder for employers to make sure that age is properly addressed in their employment-related policies and decisions.
We begin with two axioms: First, the number of potential and current employees using some form of social media continues to increase dramatically. Second, whether due to the state of our economy, or the fact that members of our society are both staying healthy and living longer, the current workforce is getting older. Madden’s report for the Pew Research Center ties together these two assertions, with remarkable data and conclusions. For example:
· “Social networking use among Internet users ages 50 and older has nearly doubled – from 22% to 42% over the past year.”
· “Half (47%) of Internet users ages 50-64 and one in four (26%) users ages 65 and older now use social networking sites.”
· “One in ten (11%) online adults ages 50-64 and one in twenty (5%) online adults ages 65 and older now say they use Twitter or another service to share updates about themselves or see updates about others.”
· Among the implications of rising social media use by older adults is the increased use of social media for those who are looking to “embark on a new career”, and, more particularly, for those older adults looking to social media “for professional networking, continuing education, and political participation.”
Employer Take Away: What should every employer take away from this development? No longer can the older generation of employees be ignored, or summarily dismissed as either being “technology illiterate” or too “old school” for new social media. It is, therefore, critical for employers to understand the extent to which there is an aging workforce, and that the rules pertaining to the use of social media in employment-related decisions apply equally to all employees, regardless of their age.
(1) Employers should remember that sexual harassment is not the only form of proscribed harassment. Harassment based on other protected statuses, such as age, may also expose a company to liability. Therefore, a company should ensure that social networking sites and other social media outlets are not being used to inappropriately harass or discriminate against older individuals on the basis of their age, with the same vigilance that most companies now take toward sexual harassment issues. Employment policies (including electronic and social media policies) should be effectively written, and managers effectively trained, to encompass conduct that could lead to an age harassment claim by an employee.
(2) In a similar vein, the increased use of social media by older employees necessarily puts certain personal information in the public domain, about which an employer could not otherwise inquire in a personal interview – most obviously, the age of the potential or current employee. Care should be taken to insulate decision makers involved with hiring or firing, as well as direct supervisors, from age-related information so as not to contaminate an otherwise legitimate business decision.
(3) There is a legal irony whereby the law prohibits employers from treating employees differently because of their age, yet requires employers to treat employees differently because of their age when it comes to written release and waiver agreements entered into with departing employees. The federal Older Workers Benefit Protection Act of 1990 (“OWBPA”) imposes very specific requirements in order to have a valid release and waiver of rights executed by an employee who is 40 years of age or older. Among the OWBPA’s requirements are that the release and waiver must expressly refer to claims and rights under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act, must only be given in exchange for consideration to which the individual is not otherwise entitled, must expressly advise the individual to consult with an attorney, and must contain a set period of time for the individual to consider the agreement and to revoke the agreement even after its execution. To the extent an employer engages in a RIF or other mass layoff, it would also be wise to ensure that any age-related impacts are thoroughly considered.