4 Min. Read

What to Do if You Encounter Age Discrimination

An older woman in a job interview worried that she is encountering ageism

As people stay in the workforce longer and seniors are more active than ever before, discrimination due to a person’s age is becoming more common. Some people may find they are constantly being reassigned at work in an effort to frustrate them and convince them to quit. Other companies may favor younger employees as a better “cultural fit.” In whatever way it manifests itself, ageism can lead to unpleasantness at work and loss of income. It’s also illegal. 

Here’s what you need to know about ageism in the workplace and how to respond. 

What Is Ageism? 

Ageism occurs when an employee is treated differently due to their age, according to Robert C. Bird, a professor of business law at the University of Connecticut. “Federal law prohibits discrimination at work on the basis of age for employees forty years of age or older,” Bird says. “Furthermore, many states have laws prohibiting age discrimination against any person, regardless of their age.” 

However, these laws designed to protect older workers aren’t always effective. To get around them, companies can couch their decisions in language like “going in a different direction.” Another tactic is to stop giving you raises or assign you to increasingly intolerable roles to encourage you to quit on your own. “

Age discrimination typically manifests in stereotypes of older workers,” Bird says. Some of the indications you’re being stereotyped might include the following: 

  • Implications that you’re inflexible when it comes to new ideas. 
  • Accusations that you aren’t learning new technology.
  • Remarks that you aren’t “keeping up like you used to.”

“When these stereotypes are used to make decisions or determine the conditions of employment, they potentially constitute illegal age discrimination,” Bird says. 

How to Respond to Ageism 

If you feel you’ve experienced age discrimination or ageism in your employment, Robert Odell, an employment attorney and managing partner at Odell Law PLC, says you have three main choices: 

  1. Do nothing and hope things improve. 
  2. Voice your concerns directly to the person who made ageist comments or decisions.
  3. Report the incident to your human resources department.

Whatever you decide, Odell suggests you document as much as possible. Note the dates and times of ageist interactions and the people involved. If you choose to approach the ageist person directly, Odell says to bring witnesses. Ask the witnesses to record, in writing, their version of events, so you have corroboration in writing. 

Keep Records and Document the Entire Process 

Odell says having a written record, such as an email, to show a timeline can also help you later. If you experience retaliation for reporting ageism, you need to have a record that the retaliation came after you made your complaint. 

“Even if your human resources department seems approachable, don’t just walk in and talk to someone,” Odell says. “Instead, write a thoughtful email explaining what happened and why you believe it is inappropriate.” 

Most companies have policies surrounding discrimination, including age discrimination, according to Joshua Hart, an employee relations expert and founder of Joshua Hart Consulting.  

“It’s important to follow your company’s policies and procedures, which vary depending on the organization,” Hart says. “If the issue isn’t resolved after you follow company policy, you can consider other options, such as seeking legal advice or filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.” 

It can be tough to combat ageism. However, if you’re looking for a new position, Hart offers some tips for vetting your next employer: 

  • Research companies that have a reputation for inclusion. 
  • Review company policies and verify that they have an inclusion policy. 
  • Network with colleagues in your field to learn about organizations that value inclusion and don’t practice ageism. 

Odell also suggests reviewing county court records at the company’s headquarters location. Information on past employment lawsuits might help you get a feel for the company culture. 

In the end, Bird recommends making sure that company policies are transparent and that the representative you speak to demonstrates a commitment to keeping the workplace free of discrimination. Once you agree to employment, ensure you know what’s expected of you. 

“Ensure your terms of employment are established in a clear and objective manner,” Bird says. “Opaque or contradictory standards about how employees are hired, fired, promoted or given other benefits could be a cover for illegal discrimination.” 

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