The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines age discrimination as when an employee over the age of 40 is treated less favorably because of his or her age.
A few years ago, the San Francisco Federal Reserve released one of the largest-ever studies on age discrimination in the workforce. After strategically submitting more than 40,000 fake applications to low-paying jobs often held by older workers (administrative assistants, janitorial staff, etc.), they found that young and middle-aged applicants had higher callback rates than older ones, and older female applicants fared far worse than their male counterparts.
Such findings are grim, but probably not surprising to older workers. Despite the protections in place to guard against ageism, age discrimination continues to pervade American companies: The AARP says that among workers ages 45 to 74, 72% of women and 57% of men have experienced age discrimination.
Hiring isn't the only time it crops up, either. Age discrimination happens at every stage of employment -- hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, benefits, etc. -- and oftentimes, it's relatively subtle and hard to prove.
Here's how to spot age discrimination in your workplace, and what to do if it happens to you.
What age discrimination looks like
- "I'm not sure you've heard of this modern invention called email" -- If your employer is taking shots at your age (using nicknames, implying you don't understand recent technology, purposefully excluding you from conversations about current events or pop culture), this is considered harassment, and they could be trying to get you to quit because they can't legally fire you.
- All the new hires are young -- Does your company hire only 25-year-olds to fill open roles, even if they're mid-level positions? They might not be shifting business practices to lure millennials; they could be discriminating.
- Your promotion goes to someone else, a much younger someone else -- You're the most qualified person for the job, but somehow, Jenny, who's been out of school for a year, snags the new role.
- Your employer starts to "lighten your load" -- When an employer does this, it's often an attempt to phase older workers out of certain projects, and it's masked as a benefit to you, which makes it all the more frustrating.
- Removing you from meetings -- Employees who feel isolated don't usually stick around, so by leaving you out of company conversations, your employer might be trying to make you feel like you no longer belong.
- Encouraging you to retire -- This is pretty blatant and hard to turn down, but sometimes companies offer older employees retirement packages to force them to "amicably" leave.
- You're being unfairly punished -- You have a history as an awesome employee, but your boss just put you on an improvement plan or is reprimanding you more harshly than a younger employee. Red flags here indicate they're trying to find grounds to fire you or force you to leave.
- Laying off everyone over a certain age -- If everyone in the last round of layoffs was age 40 and up, you have a good age discrimination lawsuit on your hands. Harder to prove are situations with younger employees in the mix, which is something companies do to hide age discrimination.
- Your job title disappears -- You might get laid off if your company says it no longer needs your role, but if a new younger person takes on your old tasks under a new job title, that's grounds for age discrimination.
What you can do about age discrimination in the workplace
Know your rights -- Workers age 40 and up are protected by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), which forbids employers from treating applicants or employees less favorably because of their age through all aspects of employment. This does not protect employees under age 40, though some states have laws that do. ADEA also protects employees from harassment and from any employment policies that, specifically, have a negative impact on employees 40 or older.
Remove proof of age -- ADEA cannot keep employers from asking your age or your graduation date; that's still legal. But you can do things to avoid that conversation: Limit your resume to one or two pages by deleting job experience that's more than 15 years old, and proactively remove dates from your resume and LinkedIn profile.
Keep a record -- When you start to think you're experiencing discrimination, keep a careful record of what's happening, including emails and written descriptions of meetings you've had where discrimination occurred. Be sure to keep track of who was in those meetings to bolster your case.
Take action -- Think you've been discriminated against? File a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), or work with a lawyer to file a lawsuit. If you're worried about money, consider using your company's grievance system to air your concerns.
How you can fight age discrimination -- even if you're under 40
Be mindful of what you say -- If it's around you all the time, it's easy to unintentionally contribute to a culture of age discrimination. Start paying attention to how you might be making an older co-worker feel uncomfortable in the office, and change your behavior.
Advocate for inclusivity -- You might have a normal lunch crew, but it's always a good idea to open up your group to people of different ages and backgrounds. Get to know people who are older than you. Not only have they likely been in the workforce longer and have more life experience, but they're also people with interesting lives outside the office.
Offer your help -- Stereotypes about older employees not understanding new technology run rampant, and they're often not true. But in cases where a co-worker doesn't understand the latest update or model, share what you know. Technology changes so consistently that we're all (yes, even you) constantly learning, so it's understandable that someone might need help now and again.
Talk to HR -- Specialists in human resources are trained to deal with issues like age discrimination, so if you see something, don't be afraid to report it. This could be an opportunity for your team or company to do diversity training, which, in the end, helps everyone.