How to Identify, Avoid and Fight Age Discrimination at Work

If you don’t think age discrimination exists, then you probably are under the age of 40 or you haven’t been out looking for a job lately. While the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) gives people over 40 protection, actually proving age discrimination is difficult except for the most blatant examples.

When the recession hit back in 2008, older workers seemed to be disproportionately targeted by companies for layoffs and had difficulty finding new jobs during the next few years. Your blogger was one of those older workers. Though not yet 50 years old, I was rapidly approaching that dreaded line of demarcation in today’s workplace. Yet, despite having generated millions of dollars in revenue over the previous few years as a successful copywriter, I couldn’t even get a phone interview for over a year. Finally, I started a freelance writing company where 95 percent of my business was done via email. Funny, but prejudice against older workers wasn’t an issue through email.

For many Americans, turning 40 means facing a new reality: out with the old, in with the new. While there are laws to protect older workers, age discrimination suits typically account for more than 20 percent of all complaints filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In FY 2016, there were 20,857 claims, which accounted for 22.8% of the total claims filed. Age discrimination claims have not been lower than 20 percent since before the millennium.

Older workers can overcome age discrimination, but first you need to recognize it.

What Age Discrimination Looks Like

In 2003, the grandfather of American technology companies lost a lawsuit after changing its pension plan from one that favored long-term (and generally older) employees to one that would avoid larger payouts to employees with seniority.

In 2010, one of the nation’s largest retailers was sued when a store manager told a 70-year-old pharmacist that she was “too old,” “should just retire,” and was “greedy” because she kept working at her age. The retailer paid $120,000 to settle the suit.

In 2011, a Minnesota-based multinational conglomerate paid $3 million to 290 employees over the age of 45 whose jobs were eliminated. Memos stating that the company intended to “tap youth” for leadership positions, and that “we should be developing 30-year-olds” for management.

Finally, in 2014, a Los Angeles jury awarded a 64-year old manager $3.2 million in compensatory damages — and a whopping $22.8 million in punitive damages — when a major office supply retailer was found guilty of discrimination and harassment based on his age by his managing supervisors. They went so far as to fire him for allegedly “stealing” a 68-cent green pepper from the company lunchroom, violating a zero-tolerance policy against theft. Later, the store receptionist told officials that the store asked her to lie about the green pepperIt was later discovered that the company asked the store receptionist to lie about it, but she refused.

Remember, though … what you may perceive as age discrimination may just be unethical, but not illegal, behavior. In the workplace, things like nepotism, favoritism, consensual workplace sexual affairs, and other behaviors may not be right, but they usually aren’t against the law either. For instance, your boss hires his 22-year old airhead daughter with her community college education instead of you, a highly-qualified, well-liked, respected and skilled professional with 25 years of applicable work experience. Unless your boss says he did it because you’re too old, it’s not discriminatory.  It’s stupid, but not necessary illegal.

How to Avoid Age Discrimination

While you can’t absolutely prevent age discrimination, there are things you can do to lower the risk. For instance, keep your skills, appearance, and vocabulary up-to-date. Exercise regularly. Not only will it keep you fit and healthy, it keeps your brain active and flexible.

“Older workers … need to be lifelong learners,” Laurie McCann, a senior attorney with the AARP Foundation, said. “You need to continue to dress currently and maintain your fitness level. You don’t want to play into the stereotype that you’re not adaptable.”

The EEOC occasionally sponsors free job re-education programs, as do some states and communities. Other resources include:

  • Trade journals and blogs. Trade journals talk about the latest technologies and processes. Many industry and professional organizations have blogs. Your boss is reading them, and you should be, too.
  • Continuing education (CE). Professions like nursing and teaching require ongoing CE courses. Even if your job doesn’t require it, taking a CE course can keep you on par with younger employees.
  • Community colleges and technical institutes. For $40-$60 per credit, you can take courses in almost any field. You can even get a degree or certification in a new field. Some employers offer reimbursement for tuition and fees.
  • Private job education and training. If your employer offers professionally delivered courses in-house, take advantage. If your manager specifically suggests a course for you, don’t take offense. Take the course. It may mean keeping your job or being eligible for a promotion.

 What to Do if Age Discrimination Affects You

If you are experiencing age discrimination in the workplace, your options are:

  • Keep records. Write down names, dates, times, and exactly what happened. Include the exact discriminatory words that were spoken or written. Also keep copies of your annual reviews.
  • Take action. For free instructions on filing a complaint with the EEOC, call 1-800-669-4000 (voice) or 1-800-669-6820 (TTY), or visit and look under the “Employees & Applicants” tab at the top. File charges within 180 days of the incident(s) you report. However, if you meet certain state criteria, your time could extend to 300 days. The EEOC will make a ruling, and you can take the matter to court with or without EEOC support.
  • As a last resort … quit. Your company’s loss of talent, experience, and wisdom could be another organization’s gain.

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