Tier One’s Thibodeau finds age discrimination most common in exec search

By Cate Chapman on June 23, 2015

Mark Thibodeau has had a 20-year career in executive search as a head hunter for global manufacturing companies. He has placed hundreds of leadership professionals in the automotive, chemical, electronics, and industrial industries around the globe. In 2002, he founded Tier One Executive Search with offices in Detroit, Shanghai and in Canada. 


The team of consultants at auto and manufacturing recruiting firm Tier One Executive Search had noticed a reoccurring issue associated with a societal trend, and wanted to track it.

According to Mark Thibodeau, senior partner with the Detroit-based firm, Tier One occasionally encounters hiring requests from prospective clients that are not above-board or aligned with US law. These cases were addressed in an internal survey of the firm’s consultants.

Thibodeau says it is, by far, most common for a company to want to have someone eliminated from consideration due to his or her age, while he can’t recall any specific instance where there has been an obvious case of hiring discrimination based on sex, religion, national origin, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. He does, though, suspect that these forms of discrimination still happen frequently, albeit with more discretion.

“Age discrimination is far more blatant and overt when dealing with some European-based companies, which are coming from a place where the laws are quite different,” said Thibodeau in a statement. “We have prospective European clients who will actually include an age range on their official company job description, something like, ‘ideal candidate will be between 32 and 38 years old,’ as an example; in these cases we then have to educate them on US law.”

Thibodeau explained to Advisen that three practice areas within the firm, consisting of 5 consultants, participated in research. Each were asked to document every time they encountered an illegal request (discriminatory search assignment or discriminatory selection or disqualification of a particular candidate). This was to include only groups who are currently protected under US Federal law, including sex, national origin, race, people over the age of 40, persons with a disability, religion, etc. The documentation period was 18 months from November 2013 through May 2015.

“In all, there were 26 instances of illegal discrimination in the form of either a discriminatory job order request, refusal or resistance to interview a candidate, or discriminatory  advertising (without the presence of a bona fide occupational qualification exemption),” Thibodeau told Advisen. “Some of the instances involved a potential client company making an illegal request during the needs analysis phase of our process. In other words, during our questioning about requirements and core competencies, etc., an illegal request surfaced. In other instances the initial position requirements and questioning were fine but later, upon candidate(s) presentation, there was dialogue which included resistance and/or reluctance to interview or move a candidate to the next step.”

He told Advisen that 24 of the 26 instances were related to age (a person over the age of 40).  The other two instances both were related to the sex of the candidate. There were no discriminatory requests or disqualifications based on race, religion, national origin, etc.

“This is not a scientific survey and we all agreed that there are probably other forms of discrimination at work, but that people may keep that information to themselves and don’t give any hints that they are discriminating based on race, etc.,” he told Advisen. “Another interest point in the survey portion, all five consultants had reported at least one case of a client company requesting a diverse slate of candidates based on race, religion, sex, etc. In some cases the companies claimed to have leadership teams which currently did not have enough diversity. And there was a real desire to recruit people of varying backgrounds.”

He added: “We cannot comment on all of the reasons that age was the overwhelming majority of instances, but it could have to do with the overall aging leadership workforce trend. This has created both a gap in leadership talent and a succession-planning problem for a lot of companies, which could translate into an organization having the desire to bring in talent, who are able to work for another 10-15 years or so. Often the reason a company goes to a headhunter such as Tier One Executive Search in the first place is that, for one reason or another, there is no existing employee ready to take over a senior position. The company might not have the leadership talent developed to take on positions of increased responsibility and scope.”

This is the conundrum: companies addressing real needs, while recruiting and hiring within the laws of the United States. The bottom line is that hiring managers usually try to do the right thing for their respective organizations, but in the attempt, sometimes overlook the rights of qualified, older professionals.

According to its public statement announcing the results, Tier One Executive Search found it is quite common for American companies to discriminate based on age, though they seem to do it in a less conspicuous fashion than their European and Asian counterparts. Aynk Murtty, director of new business development at Tier One, said: “Here in the US, we tend to see language such as, ‘We need for this candidate to have some runway left in his career,’ or, ‘We’d really like to get a 2-stepper here.’” Murtty explained that a “2 stepper” refers to a candidate who can be promoted two levels above the position for which he or she is hired.

“It’s not as if a company sets out to discriminate against an older candidate, it’s just that there is a real and legitimate need to hire someone who can later move into future roles,” Thibodeau explained. “The company may need to hire a director of purchasing, as an example, but really needs for that person to take on the role of vice president of purchasing in three years time, and then move up into the role of senior vice president of global purchasing. In other words, if the company is experiencing a succession problem and it hires someone who is going to retire in 2-3 years, it hasn’t done anything to solve the succession problem.”