Age discrimination is a real problem for many older individuals in the workforce. It seems counterintuitive to ostracize populations with more experience and knowledge, but managers and hiring departments with ageist attitudes fail to recognize the value that older workers bring.
It is estimated that about two-thirds of workers between the ages of 45 and 74 have experienced or witnessed age discrimination. It continues to be one of the more pervasive forms of discrimination seen by employment lawyers. For people within this age bracket, discriminatory attitudes and practices can be a top obstacle to obtaining employment.
What is Age Discrimination?
Age discrimination involves unfair or unfavorable treatment because of an employee’s age. It can occur in many forms, both subtle and blatant. Ageism can also combine with other types of discriminatory practices, including race-related and gender discrimination. For example, women and people of color often report that their age has more of a negative effect in their workplace.
Age discrimination is illegal during any part of the employment process, from hiring to firing and every step in between. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibits age discrimination against people aged 40 and over. As with most laws, there are special conditions and exceptions for specific scenarios.
The ADEA is a federal law, but states can add their own regulations as long as they do not contradict or conflict with the federal mandates. As such, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA) may offer additional protections for workers in the state. For example, the ADEA stipulates rules for companies with a certain number of employees, but the PHRA adjusts that requirement for in-state companies, which means more people in Pennsylvania can qualify for protection against age discrimination.
The Difference Between Discrimination and Harassment
Discriminatory and harassing behaviors may be prohibited by federal or state laws, but they are not exactly the same. Harassment involves offensive comments, incessant teasing, or other conduct that creates a hostile or uncomfortable working environment. Harassment can lead to and is often considered a type of discrimination. It can be helpful to be able to identify both of these harmful practices to prevent negative behavior from escalating further.
Job Hunting and The Gray Ceiling
Age discrimination can make it difficult for some job seekers to break through the gray ceiling. This term references the barrier that many older individuals face during the hiring process. Despite the experience and knowledge that candidates over the age of 40 bring to a position, recruiters and hiring personnel often refuse to look past age.
Currently, asking for someone’s age or date of birth is still legal during the hiring process. Some organizations and advocates are fighting to have this line of inquiry prohibited from employment applications and interviews, but as of right now, companies are allowed to ask. Knowing how old someone is prior to or during the onboarding process can affect the hiring decision, even if subconsciously. That is why there has been a push to prevent age from being disclosed to potential employers.
Six Signs of Age Discrimination in the Workplace
How do you identify age discrimination in your workplace? The signs are not always obvious, but knowing what to look for can help you recognize them.
Companies who prioritize things like fresh perspectives and new talent may genuinely be interested in innovation merely for the sake of improvement and growth. However, there can also be an underlying meaning. For example, if your employer frequently uses terms like energetic or young in their communications with company employees, it could signify age discrimination.
Job postings that include things like “recent graduate” or “no experience necessary” can also be indicative of discriminatory hiring practices. It is important to note these things even if you are already employed with the company, as this behavior can and often does seep over from hiring into other areas like promotions and raises.
Are you constantly being ignored during staff meetings? Do you get turned down for special projects in favor of younger workers? Have you been told you’re overqualified for a position? Ageism can rear its ugly head in every part of your day-to-day work life. Preferential treatment aimed at younger employees can look like extra opportunities for training, more praise and positive feedback, and more frequent raises. Your age should not play any part in advancement or accolades at work, but unfortunately, this happens frequently to people over the age of 40.
Many people in younger generations assume that people over a certain age cannot understand technology. For example, suppose your coworkers or supervisors have implied or made jokes about your inability to operate office equipment, software, or any other piece of technology. In that case, they may be subtly expressing their ageist beliefs.
Other common and hurtful assumptions include physical and cognitive differences between different age groups. You should not be made to feel as though you can’t keep up with your younger coworkers. Comments or jokes about physical mobility, overall health, or brain function related to your age do not have to be tolerated.
Layoffs and Demotions
Companies go through natural ebbs and flows in their business needs, sometimes leading to layoffs and pay cuts. However, if the only employees who have been on the receiving end of these unfortunate occurrences are over the age of 40, there may be a more significant issue at hand. The same rule applies to demotions, as well. The decision to move someone down the corporate ladder should be based on job performance, not date of birth.
Employee retention is not always a direct result of a company’s policies, but if there is a pattern of older workers leaving their positions and being replaced with younger counterparts, there may be cause for alarm. Some level of shifting demographics is to be expected as people retire and are replaced with inevitably somewhat younger hires. Managers should not be pressuring or forcing certain members of their workforce to leave because of their age. If this is the case in your company, discriminatory practices may be to blame.
It’s natural for similar groups of people to congregate. Birds of a feather flock together is a cliched saying because it tends to be true. However, ageism is often the culprit when these social gatherings purposefully or maliciously exclude older employees. Cliques among coworkers are not the only place where this type of discrimination can be found. Hobnobbing with the boss on the golf course or at happy hour can be a great career opportunity, but who is being invited to these events? Taking a closer look at the demographics can reveal potential discrimination.
Options for Recourse
If you suspect that your employer has performed any type of discriminatory action against you, there are options for seeking a solution. For example, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) often handles complaints of discrimination, and they have a system in place to investigate such claims. Filing an age discrimination complaint with the EEOC may be the only step you need to take if they find that your claim has merit, and an experienced Pittsburgh age discrimination attorney would tell you that it is required in most situations prior to filing a lawsuit.
Through interviews and the gathering of evidence, the Commission will attempt to uncover any wrongdoing that has occurred. Depending on the outcome, you may be offered the opportunity to voluntarily reach a settlement or be provided with a Notice of Right to Sue. The latter gives you the green light to pursue legal action against your employer or former employer.
If a lawsuit is the route, you choose or are forced to take in order to obtain a reasonable resolution, being prepared is crucial for your case. You will only have a limited amount of time from when you receive the Right to Sue notice to file a lawsuit. In addition to the time limitations, you must gather the necessary evidence to prove that intent and unlawful discrimination occurred.
Discrimination is not just shameful; it’s illegal. Employers cannot rightfully commit age discrimination against employees or job candidates, but identifying this type of behavior is not always easy, as systemic ageism is often insidious. Your years of industry experience should be valued, not scorned. Attorney Charles Lamberton can help you understand if you have been the target of age discrimination in the work place. Contact him today.