Russia’s government is starting to take age discrimination seriously, but employers are not listening.by Galina Stolyarova 26 September 2013
“Look at this old cow, what on earth is she thinking of?” the executive muttered as she glimpsed a candidate about to enter her office for a job interview. She pursed her lips in an effort to conceal her disappointment.
The annoyed woman was the head of human resources at a large publishing company. I witnessed this scene entirely by chance, as I was waiting to meet a friend who worked there.
I later discovered that the “old cow” was all of 41 years old. She had been selected for the interview because the management was impressed with her CV. The woman hadn’t mentioned her age on her application, but when she turned up in the flesh, it was somehow a problem.
Discrimination against job candidates aged 35 and over has been rampant in Russian since the country’s 1998 economic crisis. It has now reached such a level that parliament recently passed a law forbidding employers from either imposing age limits in job descriptions or ruling applicants out of the running on the grounds of age alone.
In force since July, the measure is meeting fierce resistance.
Online job forums are full of angry comments by HR specialists and recruiters. They complain that the law has made hiring more difficult and time-consuming, and argue that it won’t help people in their 40s to be any more confident in the job market. People of mature years look set to remain persona non grata in many Russian companies, at least until the structure of the job market itself changes.
Many of the jobs on offer in Russia are in sales, which may help to explain why many employers want candidates to be young, attractive, and energetic-looking. In the Russian job market there is also a tendency to offer one salary to cover what amounts to several jobs – something a seasoned candidate would be more likely to resist.
In theory a candidate who suffers from age discrimination has the right to take legal action. In theory all that is required is a recording of the conversation containing evidence of discrimination. Yet lawyers say that in practice there is little chance of winning such a case, as it’s easy enough for employers to come up with other credible reasons for rejecting a candidate.
“We’re being forced to lie, that’s all,” one HR specialist told the Superjob.ru recruiting website, which surveyed recruiters’ attitudes about the amendment.
“We have a young team so an older specialist would feel out of place,” is a common excuse offered by HR specialists.
“We don’t want this burden – stagnating old people who think differently,” reads another comment, posted at Superjob.ru.
“We set age requirements because we want to protect ourselves from spam applications,” follows another opinion.
“This law will have negative consequences. If we obey it you will see 50-year-old salespeople and waiters!” complains a participant in one recruitment survey.
In most cases, the the ploy of not revealing one’s age on a CV is not a solution for job-seekers.
“When I get a response to my CV, the age question is about the first thing I’m asked,” said Viktoria, a web designer in her early 50s. “Once the callers hear it, they don’t want to hear any more.”
Unemployment is an international issue. It was one of the hot topics at the G20 summit in St. Petersburg earlier this month. Yet the pattern of unemployment in Russia is different from that of Western Europe, where it seems recent graduates are the most vulnerable group.
Western European employers are reluctant to hire young people without relevant work experience. In Russia, by contrast, once workers hit 35 and have a level of experience that should fill employers with confidence, they instead find themselves entering job limbo, viewed as “finished,” “burnt out,” or a loser.
“If you’re a solid professional, why would you need to apply for jobs? You should be able to find a good job through your personal connections,” one HR specialist told me. “If you have to resort to recruiters at that age, this is a sign that you’re not a good catch.”
But in the absence of an effective anti-discrimination strategy from the government, some “aged” candidates are taking matters into their own hands.
Irina, 43, a former saleswoman who is fluent in English, tackled her employment problem by choosing to apply for part-time teaching and translating jobs rather than trying to find a full-time position in sales. Her strategy paid off.
“In translating, it doesn’t matter how old you are, whether you’re bald, fat, or wear glasses,” she said. “The clients want the translation to be accurate and fast, that’s all. I now have several clients, and a good income.”
In some cases, a repeated failure even to be invited for an interview has prompted people to set up their own companies, and not without success.
In 2011, the ROMIR polling agency conducted a nationwide survey that produced surprising results. The agency polled people who had launched their own businesses after the age of 40 and discovered that for 78 percent of them their main impetus to strike out on their own was repeated failure to get a job.
Widespread age discrimination against job-seekers in Russia is not only a reflection of distorted social attitudes and all-or-nothing thinking. It is also a symptom of the country’s economic problems. Small businesses feel strangled by taxation, many industries are at a fledgling stage, and vast numbers of people are forced to work in sales, where age and looks are valued above education, experience, and skill.
Once the economy recovers and becomes more diverse, it ought to be easier for middle-aged or older people to find work. Once there are more jobs on offer, one can hope that discrimination on grounds of age or appearance will diminish. After all, when you buy pastries, their taste doesn’t depend on the age or the looks of the person who baked them. That is a truth Russia needs to rediscover.