Making Way For The Silver Sprinter

An analysis on the level of awareness about ageism, a form of discrimination against seniors, among Indian pharma firms and the measures taken to eliminate it. By Usha Sharma

A form of discrimination and prejudice, ageism is faced particularly by seniors across work front. Coined by Robert Neil Butler in I969 to describe discrimination against seniors, ageism was not much discussed in India till now. However, the time has come to highlight the issue of ageism across sectors in India.

With many branded medicines of multinational pharma companies going off patent, a huge business opportunity awaits Indian pharma companies. Besides, looking for skilled and tech-savvy manpower, the pharma sector should also keep in mind, the old adage, ‘Old is Gold’ i.e. older experienced talent has its value. But the flip side is also true not to discriminate the elderly while recruiting the right talent. The industry, backed by the human science knowledge, however, needs to be abreast with revolutionised technology and the key challenge will be to remain updated with today’s technology. Do pharma companies need to have policies restricting the age of employees?

Global perspective

As per the information available in public domain, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) is the US federal law governing age discrimination. Enacted in 1967, it is meant to promote the employment of older members of the workforce and prevent discrimination based solely on age rather than skills and abilities. The Act enables senior citizens to work and prohibits an employer from refusing to hire, fire, or otherwise discriminate against an employee aged 40 or older, solely on the basis of age. It also protects senior citizens from an employer in denying an employee pay or any benefits just because the employee happens to be on the other side of the age divide.

So can such an Act work in India?

Informing about the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 in US, N Ahmedali, Managing Director, Cornucopia briefs, “In the US, accountability and being competent is of paramount importance and actions can be taken if an employee underperforms due to lack of commitment and willingness to work hard. Hence, if those above 40 does not perform he/she is likely to lose his/ her job. In India it is not easy to relieve ‘under performers.’” The EU too protects the silver generation.

In his personal opinion, Amit Kumar Das, Director – People and Organisation, Novo Nordisk India says, “Grouping employees into sets on the basis of age and then depriving them of possible employment opportunities is also wrong in the eyes of ADEA. It is also worth noting that the European Equal Treatment Framework Directive No. 2000/78 also makes age discrimination laws compulsory throughout the EU.”

Analysing the relevance of Employment Act of 1967 and its practice in the US and whether in India senior citizens need such protection, Ahmedali emphasises, “In India too, we need to protect the senior citizens and give them opportunity to work, though most companies and government undertakings have a retirement age of 58 or 60. They say ‘60’ is the new ‘40’, therefore ‘60+’ people are able to contribute to organisations. Therefore, there must be agencies to find employment for such people. In my judgement bringing about laws in this respect may not work very well in India. We generally tend to misuse the provisions of law.”

Indian scenario

In India there are no codified laws, which directly deal with the issue of age discrimination. Das informs, “Article 15(1) of the Indian Constitution provides that “the State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them.” Also, it is to be noted that the fundamental rights set out in the Indian constitution are available only against the State. The lack of a proper Indian legislation in this regard is not surprising given the fact that the awareness of the need to prevent so-called ‘ageism’ is still quite low in the country. However, there have been a few instances of ageism in Indian private sector as reported by the media but the claims still seem a tad lower compared to other forms of discrimination with respect to religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth.”

On being asked whether age discrimination will help companies to grow faster, Das replies and says that it cannot be answered in binary as a simple yes or no. He elaborates, “In some job profiles, we need to appreciate that “age is in fact NOT just a number!” The term ‘discrimination’ has a negative connotation but to be fair we should look into the circumstances a decision is made. Generally speaking, where there are reasonable grounds for discrimination on the basis of age, such as the nature of the job, location of the job, etc, discrimination may be justified, but can we call it discrimination?”

He says, “There are profiles which will definitely require older executives and the vast experience they bring to the table. But then we cannot call it a discriminatory practice, can we? I think this is where the real challenge lies. Moreover, private enterprises may argue they have all the right to hire who they want for a job. But I think we all agree, that if there is a discrimination solely because of age, with respect to compensation and promotion opportunities, once someone has already been hired, it is unjustified. Protection should be there in such cases but the burden of proof with respect to the adverse employment action will always lie with the victim who alleges discrimination.”

Judging an individual on his/ her age might be the wrong step, however, certain profiles demand such people. It all depends upon portfolio requirements which need to have experienced or newer talent for the betterment of companies’ growth.

Das describes, “In a nutshell, companies will grow faster if they can develop the younger workforce around the older and much experienced workforce. After all, many research studies show that a diverse workforce leads to an improved bottom-line.”

Ahmedali too supports this reasoning saying , “I believe that experience which comes with age creates a lot of wisdom in the employees. This cannot be substituted merely by education, like an MBA. If companies can capitalise on the wisdom of seniors they can grow much faster.”

Continuous learning

Learning is a constant process, which has no age bar. Today, the pharma industry is facing a lot of challenges, and one among them is how to create a policy where senior professionals can work in sync with the new generation.

Ahmedali feels, “The older candidates or executives’ ability to learn and practice advanced high-end technology is limited and does not keep pace with the younger generation. However, there are some exceptions. But, the ‘wisdom’ that experienced seniors bring will neutralise/ exceed the search and researches by young tech savvy youngsters. Gen ‘Y’s fingers are on ‘Goggle’ before even the question is completely heard.”

Technological evolution coupled with the advancement in technology ensures the dilution of age boundaries and may make it possible for older executives to contribute much meaningfully at all levels and across all roles. Das confirms, “In this tech-savvy world all products are increasingly focussed on simple user interface that should not be complex for any age bracket. Moreover, technology should not be seen as a challenge and executives (be it older or younger) must keep abreast of the new technology at least to the extent that it helps their own cause. Falling behind in terms of technology is reason enough to be discriminated against and rightfully so. Having said that, it is difficult to stay away from technology these days and older executives are no exception to the rule.”

Ranjit Madan, Chief Executive Officer, Life Sciences Sector Skill Development Council suggests, “An experienced executive in the team, who can bring into play their reservoir of knowledge and experience accumulated over the years, produces better results. An organisation’s image can only improve with this.”

The idea of having both the generations together looks an ideal but there will be always two sides to the argument.

Moving forward

Das emphasises, “Older executives bring a lot to the table and is not limited to the years of experience. Older workers tend to have knowledge that is invaluable and expertise that is not limited to theories in text books. Personally, I would hire older people for two very important reasons. Firstly, I would hire them because they have established long-term networks of clients and contacts which can be leveraged by any company irrespective of the sector they operate in. Secondly, older executives can be terrific mentors to the younger talent pool.”

He further elaborates, “I would like to highlight a few challenges associated with hiring older executives which I also feel can be easily mitigated through the use of advanced technology, hence I will not use the word ‘disadvantage’ for the same. Older employees may often require flexible working hours but some companies may find it difficult to provide that. However, with the advent of virtual rooms and conferences, this should no longer pose to be a challenge. In fact allowing the executive to connect from his place of convenience can actually become a cost effective solution for a company in the long run. A common thing that we often get to hear against older employees is their inability to accept change as they might be set in their ways. But according to me this has more to do with bias than with reality.”

Ahmedali highlights, “The advantages of having older executives specially in the pharma and manufacturing industry is that their commitment, loyalty and wisdom gained through experience is far stronger. The disadvantage is of course they are slow in keeping up with new trends and technologies and therefore the market image of such companies is that they are ‘still in old age’. Indian pharma companies should not discriminate against older generation but instead seek opportunities to gain from the collective ‘wisdom’ of the seniors.”

Madan feels, “I believe Indian pharma companies are no exception. They should have a healthy mix of more experienced and relatively younger executives.”

Ultimately, it is the human resource department, which bears the responsibility of ensuring that the practice of ageism does not get encouraged within an organsiation. And finally it is the human resource department which can play a crucial role.

As Das sums up, “I strongly believe that the human resources department has a strong role to play in ensuring that age never becomes a deciding factor for selecting or rejecting a candidate.”

Age Discrimination in Employment ActCornucopiaNovo Nordisk India