Today’s workforce is very diverse – employees vary widely in their beliefs, their cultural heritage, and their age. Given the economic downturn of recent years, more and more people have had to delay retirement, making this one of the oldest workforces in more than half a century. In the U.S., almost 1 in 5 people ages 65 and older are working or looking for a job. As the workforce has grown older, age discrimination has become something you need to watch out for.

Age discrimination is any instance in which an older employee is treated differently due to his or her age. For instance, if a company denies a candidate employment because he is less than ten years away from retirement; a manager skips over a more experienced employee for a promotion or for the lead on a project; or a younger employee cracks jokes about an older employee’s age – all of these instances are examples of how ageism can creep up in the workplace.

Some of these examples are easier to detect and avoid, like denying employment due to age, which is in direct violation of U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Law. Others however, are more difficult to spot. Here are a few signs to watch out for, so that you can identify instances of ageism in your company.

  • Employees refer to an older employee as “grandpa,” “pops,” “old man,” or any other term that connotes age, whether to his face or among one another.
  • An older employee is asked whether she’s ok doing something, with the implication being that because of her age she might not be able to.
  • A manager questions an older employee in depth about his absences due to medical reasons.
  • An older employee is excluded from activities or meetings that involve all or most of her team.
  • An older employee gets disciplined for things that younger employees in the company get away with all the time.
  • An older employee is consistently passed over for promotions, opportunities, or leads.

These types of actions should be identified and quickly addressed, in order to avoid discrimination or harassment lawsuits. An atmosphere of inequity can be detrimental to employee morale and productivity in general; and if unchecked, it can get worse. If older employees feel discriminated against or treated differently, they’ll be less likely to participate in activities or volunteer ideas. This, in turn, can aggravate the discrepancies in treatment.

Another thing to consider is what older employees bring to the table. It may be easy for some younger people to think that older employees bring little to the workplace – they may think they’re not quick enough, tech-savvy enough, or hip enough. There may also be resentment among younger employees who want to move up in the company but can’t because older employees are delaying retirement and staying in upper management positions longer.

Yet older employees are incredibly valuable to employers. A survey done by the Society for Human Resource Management and the AARP found that about 50 percent of employers are worried about the loss of older employees in the next few years, and 40 percent think it will negatively affect their whole industry.

Older employees have years of experience working in their industries and in some cases in one company. This means they have a wealth of accumulated knowledge that is not always easy to transfer to others. They have lived through changes, dealt with major issues, and solved problems for years. That knowledge can make them invaluable to employers who depend on them for anything from their historical perspectives to their extensive network.

Knowing how valuable older employers are, and how important it is to avoid potential legal actions against your company or a demoralized workforce, it makes sense to fight against ageism. For starters, HR departments should always try to make sure that age bias doesn’t happen, by listening to both older and younger employees and looking for clues that point to ageism. HR should also provide all employees with information about ageism and encourage employees to come forth if they witness it. You need to make it clear that the company will not stand for ageism and that appropriate action will be taken if any employee engages in this behavior.

Secondly, managers should be aware that ageism exists. They should be aware of the consequences of treating older employees differently by leaving them out of meetings or not considering them for promotions or projects. They should also keep an eye on all employees to make sure they’re not engaging in ageist behavior.

Finally, older employees shouldn’t let their coworkers get away with ageism. They should be encouraged to address the issue either directly with the coworker engaging in the behavior, or by reporting him or her to HR or management. If the behavior continues, they may contact the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to make sure that their case is heard.

Adina Miron

7 Comments

  • Avatar Ann Voss says:

    We will all get older sooner or later and I don’t think that each of us would like to experience ageism at work. Being older doesn’t mean that a person is constantly sick and can’t perform well; it just means that s/he’s got a lot of experience, which can (and should) be shared with the youngsters.

  • Avatar Alan Fill says:

    Old people should be respected by all means and should be granted equal opportunities at work. With today’s progress in medicine people have much longer and healthier life than they used to. Young people should realize that they will become older and would want to have equal opportunities at work as well.

  • Avatar Jess Starks says:

    The very fact that the older people are willing to work and share their experience deserves respect. Older people shouldn’t be silent if they feel they are not treated appropriately at work and should take a more active position as they are valuable workers for the company.

  • Avatar Tim Hudson says:

    It’s a pity that we claim living in a developed world that is becoming global but we still don’t know to appreciate people as they are and we judge them according to some stereotypes. From my point of view, respect is one of the best ways of fighting against ageism and as Ann Voss said we should take into consideration that at one point we will all get older.

  • Avatar Carolin M says:

    Ageism is unlawful. Someone should not be treated any differently by his colleagues just because of their age, unless there are some strong reasons that can objectively justify it. Every employer should pay attention to this issue and solve as quickly as possible any unfair situations.

  • Avatar Bryan says:

    Maybe one year ago I would have totally agreed with this article but after my last experience I am not sure. I respect old people, I know that I have lot of things to learn from their experience but I think that sometimes age counts. My current job has taught me that an employer should hire senior people only if they are certain that the person is suitable for the organizational culture.

  • Avatar AK says:

    It goes both ways. I’m 25, I work in a retail store unloading deliveries with forklifts. I also know a lot about what we sell and where everything is.

    But when I go out onto the shop floor if I’m stood near someone who looks even a bit older and a customer needs help they’ll act like I’m invisible. Like when I see them there doing that confused / anticipatory look they do when they’re about to ask a question I ask them what they need. If I’m stood in near anyone see they’ll look straight past me to the point of cocking their head to the side and to get the other person’s attention, pretending like they didn’t notice me. 9 times out of 10 this is people over 50 too.

    Then half the time the other employee asks me anyway as they either don’t know enough about what the customer wants or don’t know what it is. I had it happen blatantly in front of my boss before where I saw an older woman wanting something, asked her if she needed help and she just blanked me and acted like she didn’t even see me and asked the boss who noticed too and refered them to me (I could tell the boss had noticed it too).

    I’ve had female workers there say similar things to me too that blokes ignore them and go and ask male members of staff for advice. So the discrimination is rife – both age and sex, but it’s not just old people who get discriminated against as is often claimed. The amount of times I hear people moaning about “kids” on checkouts or in stores does my head in. I understand older folks may have a harder time initially getting a job but younger people are more discriminated against in the workplace by both colleagues and customers being patronising.

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