Age diversity and perceived age discrimination climate
While an increase in age diversity has become an organizational reality in most corporations, its potential effects on age discrimination, commitment, and performance are not yet fully understood. Several scholars have proposed that an increase in age diversity at the workplace may lead to lower levels of discrimination, arguing with a familiarization to older workers in an increasingly aging workforce (Chiu, Chan, Snape, & Redman, 2001; Finkelstein et al., 1995; Hassell & Perrewe, 1995). Furthermore, for other diversity categories (e.g., gender, ethnicity) some scholars have tended to reason that increasing diversity should lead to a more positive diversity climate as employees notice a growing workplace heterogeneity and infer that the organization values diversity (e.g., Kossek & Zonia, 1993; Kossek, Markel, & McHugh, 2003).
While these arguments may be accurate, we propose a different (i.e., positive) relationship between increasing levels of age diversity and increasing levels of perceived age discrimination climate. First, increasing age diversity in companies tends to differ from increasing gender diversity because, in most cases, age diversity is not actively fostered or managed by the firms (e.g., through affirmative action programs) but is a direct result of the demographic change in western economies (e.g., Dychtwald et al., 2004; Tempest et al., 2002), and thus less accompanied by active diversity-management programs. Second, different theoretical arguments imply a positive relationship between increasing age diversity and increasing levels of perceived age discrimination climate in the workplace. All of these arguments assume a negative effect of growing age diversity on members' social integration, i.e., a weakened psychological linkage toward striving for common goals (Harrison, Price, & Bell, 1998). In the following section, we analyze those rationales in more detail, drawing on arguments from four theoretical perspectives: The similarity-attraction paradigm, the social identity and self-categorization theory, research on career timetables, and prototype matching.
As a first theoretical argument the similarity-attraction paradigm (Byrne, 1971; Riordan & Shore, 1997) proposes that individuals prefer to affiliate with persons whom they perceive to be similar to themselves based on demographic characteristics, including age. (Avery et al., 2008; McPherson, Smith-Lovin, & Cook, 2001; Tsui, Egan, & O'Reilly, 1992). Several authors have argued that such personal ties and attraction foster cooperation in teams and workgroups (e.g., Chattopadhyay, 1999, Hobman, Bordia, & Gallois, 2004, Pelled, Xin, & Weiss, 2001). Lawrence (1988, p. 313) referred to such effects when she explained that employees of similar age “share comparable experiences and therefore develop like attitudes and beliefs” that, in turn, foster communication and cooperation. These comparable experiences stem from both historically generated similarities (e.g., graduating and starting a job during the boom of the “New Economy”) and from similar stages in private and family lives that same-aged colleagues tend to reach simultaneously (e.g., being newly married, having young children, being near to retirement, etc.) (Lawrence, 1980). We believe that such processes of homophily are not limited to teams and workgroups but can also take place at the organizational level. For example, similar aged peers in different teams or departments might prefer to go to lunch together or pursue common social activities inside and outside the workplace, rather than with younger or older colleagues from their own units. In sum, the dissociation between younger and older employees might be stronger than that between employees of different units or departments. Employees that are either younger or older than such a cohesive age group might infer that the reason for such behavior (i.e., less intensive contact with colleagues of different ages, not being invited to joint activities, etc.) is their age, and generate perceptions of age discriminatory behavior at the workplace.
As a second theoretical argument, the idea of the development of age-based subgroups within an organization is also supported by social identity (Tajfel & Turner, 1986) and self-categorization theory (Turner, 1987) which suggest that individuals tend to classify themselves and others into certain groups on the basis of dimensions that are personally relevant for them, such as the demographic categories of gender, race, or age. As a consequence, individuals tend to favor members of their own group (in-group) at the expense of other groups (out-groups) (Turner, 1987; Tajfel & Turner, 1986), against which they tend to discriminate. In the organizational context, a large number of such group memberships may exist simultaneously.
While age has the potential to become a relevant category for classification and formation of subgroups (e.g., young employees, middle-aged employees, and older employees) (Avery et al., 2008; Ensher et al., 2001; Finkelstein et al., 1995, Kearney & Gebert, 2009), whether the subgroups actually develop seems to depend on the organizational context. Growing heterogeneity could play a key role in this process since an increase in age diversity can heighten the salience (or importance) of age as a category for classification and identification. As in a group of men, gender is unlikely to be a salient category, age can only become a relevant criterion for distinction when there is some age diversity in the organization. In other words, when an organization that had been largely homogenous in terms of age distribution (e.g., consisting mainly mid-aged and older employees) gradually becomes more age-heterogeneous (e.g., by hiring more younger graduates for management positions), the importance attached to membership in one age group of employees or another should increase.
The third theoretical argument related to an increase in age discrimination climate in companies due to raising levels of age diversity is derived from the concept of career timetables (Lawrence, 1984, 1988) which assumes that clear age norms develop within an organization concerning which hierarchical level an employee should reach by a given age. While those employees who are “on schedule” (who are promoted as quickly as their same-aged peers) and those ahead of schedule (who are promoted more quickly than their peers) face few problems in the way of discrimination, employees behind schedule often struggle with lower work satisfaction (Lawrence, 1984) and tend to receive lower performance ratings and development opportunities (Cleveland & Shore, 1992; Lawrence, 1988; Tsui, Porter, & Egan, 2002).
Demographic changes and growing age diversity within organizations is likely to produce situations in which such age norms are violated more often and more employees fall behind schedule. For example, a rising number of older employees who stay in the organization until the legal retirement age will have to deal with significantly younger supervisors and might perceive that as a violation of the classic career timetable as more experienced employees have to report to organizational newcomers (Shore & Goldberg, 2005). Older employees might also feel behind schedule compared to their young supervisors and perceive certain forms of age discrimination such as lower performance and promotability ratings (Shore, Cleveland, & Goldberg, 2003; Tsui et al., 2002).
Also for younger employees, age norms might be violated more often, if for instance a lack of middle-aged managers within an organization suddenly improves promotion expectations for young managers (Lawrence, 1988). After the best of these young managers are promoted to fill the gaps, promotion chances for younger managers drop again to normal levels. Until employee perceptions re-adjust, younger workers who were not promoted might feel a certain disillusion and a violation of age norms because they cannot develop their careers as quickly as their peers, and a negative attitude toward middle-aged and older managers who are “in the way” might develop.
Finally, a similar, yet distinct, line of argumentation can be derived from the concept of prototype matching (Perry, 1994; Perry & Finkelstein, 1999), which suggests that an employee's age is often compared to the age of a “prototypical” job holder, where certain kinds of jobs are considered jobs for younger workers (with traits and skills like being energetic and being able to adapt to change quickly), while other jobs are more suitable for older employees or are age-neutral because of their reliance on steadiness and corporate knowledge (Cleveland & Landy, 1987; Perry, 1994; Perry & Bourhis, 1998). As in the case of career timetables, we suggest that an organization-wide increase in age diversity will lead to an increase in perceived misfits between job holders and job-age prototypes, where older employees work in “young-type jobs” with apparently high demands regarding pro-activity and stress-handling such as distribution and customer service, where they might be exposed to different forms of perceived age discrimination from both younger colleagues and supervisors (“Is he/she really able to keep up with us in this kind of job?”). On the other hand, younger employees might have to work in more “old-type jobs” that call for a lot of experience, such as higher management functions. Just like older employees in young-type jobs, younger employees in old-type jobs might also face certain forms of perceived age discrimination from peers, supervisors, and their employees (“Isn't he/she a bit young for this kind of job?”).
In sum, we presented theoretical and empirical evidence stemming from different streams of literature such as the similarity-attraction paradigm, social identity, and self-categorization theory, as well as theories on career timetables and prototype matching. Taken together, we assert that it is theoretically plausible to build a model in which higher levels of age diversity on an organizational level trigger perceptions of organization-wide age discrimination climate.
Thus, we propose:
H1: Higher levels of age diversity will be positively related to respondents' perceptions of age discrimination climate within companies.
Perceived age discrimination climate and collective affective commitment
One key attitudinal state of employees is their affective commitment toward the organization, which was defined by Meyer and Allen (1991) as the “the employee's emotional attachment to, identification with, and involvement in the organization” (p. 67). Affective commitment has been shown to be of high importance for organizations because it increases employees' acceptance of organizational goals, their willingness to exert effort on behalf of the organization, and their desire to remain with the organization (Meyer & Allen, 1997; Mowday, Porter, & Steers, 1982).
Several authors have shown that, in addition to individual commitment, collective forms of commitment may evolve within an organization (Kirkman & Rosen, 1999; van der Vegt & Bunderson, 2005). Following prior research by González-Romá, Peiró, and Tordera (2002), we also argue with collective perceptions of affective commitment and aggregate employees' commitment scores at the organizational level of analysis.
While a potentially negative impact of perceived age discrimination climate on members' collective commitment makes intuitive sense, various theoretical approaches also support such a relationship. First, social exchange theory suggests that members' perceptions of a supportive and fair exchange relationship between the organization and themselves is a necessary precondition for the development and preservation of high levels of affective commitment (Meyer & Allen, 1997; Shore & Wayne, 1993). Consequently, “commitment develops as the result of the experiences that satisfy employees' needs” (Meyer & Allen, 1991, p. 70). A perception of age discrimination climate is a clear violation of such an equitable give-and-take relationship, which is why it should negatively affect employees' emotional attachment to the organization, as well as their willingness to contribute. Hassell and Perrewe (1993) showed such a decline in attachment to the organization for members who perceived age discrimination in the workplace.
Second, employees' attitudes toward their employers are dependent on their perceptions of whether their own opportunities and treatment by the organization are equal to those of other groups of employees (Gutek et al., 1996). Snape and Redman (2003) argued in this regard that individuals who feel that they have suffered from unfair, age-related treatment are likely to develop a “sense of being under-valued by the organization and its members” (p. 80). In turn, such members can be expected to show decreasing levels of motivation to act on behalf of the organization. Tougas and Veilleux (1989) referred to such processes as feelings of “collective relative deprivation” where “individuals feel upset about the position of their group” within the larger organization (p. 122). This may lead to an emotional withdraw from an organization when employees feel that members of their own group are treated in an unfair and discriminative manner, as shown for gender subgroups (Gutek et al.). It is likely that such feelings of collective deprivation are also transferable to the context of perceived age discrimination, where the group of younger or older employees perceive age discrimination against their own age group and, consequently, exhibit a collective drop in their level of affective commitment. On the basis of this evidence, we suggest:
H2a: Higher levels of perceived age discrimination climate will be negatively related to respondents' collective affective commitment towards companies.
H2b: The relationship between age diversity and respondents' collective affective commitment is mediated through perceived age discrimination climate.
Collective affective commitment and company performance
Decreasing levels of collective commitment might become a serious problem for companies since research has proposed a direct link between organizational commitment and organizational performance (Meyer, Paunonen, Gellatly, Goffin, & Jackson, 1989; Meyer, Becker, & Vandenberghe, 2004; Meyer, Becker, & Van Dick, 2006). The theoretical rationale behind this relationship is the understanding of commitment as being “a force that binds an individual to a course of action that is of relevance to a particular target“ (Meyer & Herscovitch, 2001, p. 301). Especially for employees showing high levels of affective commitment, a distinct willingness to contribute to organizational goals and, hence, to organizational performance has been assumed (Meyer, Paunonen et al.; Meyer, Becker, & Vandenberghe; Meyer, Becker, & Van Dick). Compared to individuals showing continuance or normative commitment (Meyer & Allen, 1991), such employees stay within an organization because they want to (Meyer, Becker & Van Dick). Giving their services wholeheartedly to the organization and performing well above the minimum required for retention, employees with high levels of affective commitment should become a driver of organizational productivity and performance (Ostroff, 1992).
The relationship between affective commitment and performance has also been investigated empirically. However, most research has focused on the effect of affective commitment on job performance, rather than on its effect on organizational performance (e.g., Meyer, Stanley, Herscovitch, & Topolnytsky, 2002).
On the organizational level of analysis, research on the affective commitment/performance link is scarce. An exception is the study of Ostroff (1992), which found a significant positive correlation between collective attitudinal commitment and organizational performance in 298 schools in terms of performance criteria such as academic achievement, student behavior, and administrative performance. We believe that such an effect is transferable to our research question. Thus, we propose:
H3a: Higher levels of collective affective commitment will be positively related to organizational performance.
H3b: The relationship between perceived age discrimination and organizational performance is mediated through collective affective commitment.
Figure 1 gives an overview of all hypothesized relationships.