Age Discrimination: What is Ageism? Definition, Examples, and How to Prove It
As a working adult, there are many challenges that you might face on your road to retirement. Unfortunately, one of those obstacles might come in the form of age discrimination at work.
Age discrimination — also known as ageism — is a unique form of discrimination that affects those over the age of 40 in the workforce. Although it can be tricky to identify at times, it is still utterly important for you to understand and report any instances of age discrimination to either your company or the EEOC.
But what exactly qualifies as age discrimination? How should you report it, and how can you prove that it has happened? Here is some important information to consider when you’ve experienced age discrimination:
Table of Contents
What is Ageism?
“Ageism is the stereotyping and discrimination against individuals or groups on the basis of their age; ageism can take many forms, including prejudicial attitudes, discriminatory practices, or institutional policies and practices that perpetuate stereotypical beliefs.”
However, while ageism encompasses all ages, age discrimination (especially in the workplace) currently only applies to those over the age of 40. Ageism in the workplace could become more common as the Baby Boomer population continues to work, and as other, larger generations that followed them continue to age.
Age discrimination often affects those nearing the national age of retirement (66), but not all employees plan on retiring at that age. Plus, there are some workers who may not have a retirement plan in place, and thus need to continue working for years after turning 66. Age discrimination laws protect these works from facing adverse employment treatment (such as being passed up for a promotion, demoted, or fired) simply because of their age.
Age Discrimination in Employment Act
There are multiple laws that have been written over the past half-century to prohibit age discrimination in employment or in other federally funded programs. There are also various state laws that might further extend those protections, depending on your location and the location of your employer. On the federal level, there are two laws that you should be aware of:
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) was created in an effort to assist and ensure workers over the age of 40 could retain and gain employment. The purpose was defined by Congress as allowing employees the opportunity to gain employment based off of skill and ability, rather than age, to prohibit age discrimination, and to help both employers and employees find accessible accommodations that combat issues that arise from the impact of aging.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces these federal rules. According to the act, Congress had identified four key findings and purposes that led to the creation of the ADEA during that time period. They are as follows:
- “(1) in the face of rising productivity and affluence, older workers find themselves disadvantaged in their efforts to retain employment, and especially to regain employment when displaced from jobs;
- “(2) the setting of arbitrary age limits regardless of potential for job performance has become a common practice, and certain otherwise desirable practices may work to the disadvantage of older persons;
- “(3) the incidence of unemployment, especially long-term unemployment with resultant deterioration of skill, morale, and employer acceptability is, relative to the younger ages, high among older workers; their numbers are great and growing; and their employment problems grave;
- “(4) the existence in industries affecting commerce, of arbitrary discrimination in employment because of age, burdens commerce and the free flow of goods in commerce.”
The ADEA is long and fairly all-encompassing. It covers everything from prohibited practices to detailed reviews on employee benefit programs. It also prohibits employers from putting an age limit on positions or asking about age during an interview, which could adversely affect applicants over the age of 40. In essence, the law helps protect aging employees from being fired, denied employment, denied employee benefits, passed up for a raise or promotion, or demoted due to their proximity to the age of retirement.
The Age Discrimination Act of 1975 prohibits the discrimination of people based on age for programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance. This act does not cover age discrimination in employment. It is enforced by the Civil Rights Center of the US Department of Labor (DOL).
Unlike the ADEA of 1967, this act is intended to protect people of all ages, and to create a detailed guideline for specific scenarios that might require an age requirement. For example, this act affects the Department of Education and public schools across the nation, as they receive federal financial assistance. Children attending school will not have to fear being excluded due to their age.
However, this act does not affect age discrimination in employment.
Examples of Age Discrimination
It’s one thing to talk about the anti-discrimination laws that protect you, but identifying discrimination and harassment can be a little more difficult. What sort of comments or conduct count as targeted discrimination?
Here are some common examples of age discrimination:
- An applicant is applying to an entry-level data entry job, and during the interview the hiring manager makes a remark about how they normally hire “fresh-out-of-college” types. Despite the applicants willingness to work for the wages, and despite her qualifications, she is passed up for the job.
- An experienced technical employee is passed up for a promotion that would allow him to work on a more advanced software. When the employee asked his manager why he didn’t get the position, the manager makes a comment about “old people not being great with technology.”
- When a company decides to restructure their staff, they lay off three of their highest-paid and oldest employees. They make a comment about wanting to “move forward into the future,” and the employees wonder if their wages or their age was the reason behind the company’s decision.
- An older employee is called “gramps” by his coworkers and his supervisor. Even after confronting them about it, they continue to make fun of the employee’s old age. The employee is forced to file a complaint with HR to make the harassment stop.
Types of Age Discrimination
There are several different ways someone might experience age discrimination in the workplace. All these types can vary in severity, and some people might experience multiple forms of discrimination. Some of the most common types include:
- Harassment: The EEOC defines unlawful harassment as when: “1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.” Harassment can come from anyone you work with — from a coworker to a supervisor. In most cases, the harassment will be based around negative assumptions about your age.
- Age Specific Internships or Job Openings: Employers are restricted from posted an age limit for any job opening or internship opportunity, unless it is a reasonably necessary factor in the normal operation of the business. Unfortunately, some companies have been using social media to exclude older applicants from seeing career ads. This is extremely illegal, and could result in those companies being fined by the EEOC if caught.
- Milestone Change: After you turned a certain age (say 50 or 60), did you notice any changes in the way you were treated at your company? It could be that more people were commenting on your age, or that comments from your manager become more negative in tone. If you recently reached a milestone and noticed a change in behavior, it could be that you’re experiencing age bias from your peers.
- Workplace Stereotypes: You could also be experiencing the effect of negative stereotyping, such as older people not being “tech-savvy.” This could result in being passed up for a promotion, for hiring, for a raise, or even being laid off.
- Preferential Treatment: Age discrimination may also come in the form of younger workers being treated favorably over older employees, or older applicants being passed over for younger applicants for a job opening.
No matter what types of discrimination you’re experiencing, it’s important to remember to document each case so you can keep a record of the harassment or discrimination. Make sure to include the date, time, who was there, what was said or done, and if it affected your work that day.
Discrimination and bias of any sort can be extremely traumatizing to victims; ageism included. For anyone that experiences age discrimination at work, they could not only be emotionally hurt, but it could directly affect their ability to perform their job duties.
Additionally, the negative stereotypes and bias could cost the employee an opportunity to pursue a higher paying job or achieve a promotion. If a manager, supervisor, or company leader harbors age bias, it has the potential to seriously damage a victim’s career, and the harassment could become so pervasive that their environment becomes hostile. In turn, this could affect their financial situation or even force the victim to feel so uncomfortable that they decide to leave the job.
However, you don’t have to be the target of discrimination for the behavior to affect you. At times, comments made between peers can show bias, and that behavior can be damaging as well. No matter what your situation or experience might be, it’s important to bring awareness to the bias so that your company can work on creating a safer and welcoming environment for everyone.
How to Prove Age Discrimination in The Workplace
Proving discrimination of any sort can be extremely difficult. Unless someone provides direct evidence of their bias — such as saying “I hate old people” — you will have to prove bias through circumstantial evidence. Traditionally, circumstantial evidence is the most common way of investigating age discrimination, which is why it is so important to keep notes on the various experiences that you believe can build your case.
When you feel you have enough evidence, or that your environment has become hostile, bring your notes to your HR department to discuss the discrimination (or follow your company’s guidelines — as outlined in your employee manual — for reporting harassment/discrimination). Even if you only have a few minor incidents to report, your HR department should take your concerns seriously, and you should be protected from any further adverse actions taken against you. Additionally, be aware of the window of time you have to report discrimination — traditionally it’s anywhere from 90-180 days after the incident if you’re reporting the problem to the EEOC.
If you do experience retaliation in employment — such as being demoted, fired, or withheld pay after reporting discrimination to your employer — report the retaliation and harassment to the EEOC (either your local office or the federal office) by filing a charge of discrimination. Alternatively, be aware that if you believe you were fired or demoted due to your age, your company could be automatically liable for the discrimination, according to the EEOC.
Additionally, if you believe you’ve experienced discrimination at the hands of your employer, it could be worth your time to contact a discrimination lawyer to discuss your case. Even if you don’t take your case to court, lawyers can provide valuable legal counseling, and they can help explain your rights. The EEOC also provides free discrimination counseling with their organization, and they might be able to help you file a claim or find a resolution that works for you.
Experiencing discrimination of any sort can be traumatizing, but it is important to report any instances of bias so as to make the work environment better for everyone. If you’ve experienced age discrimination at your work, be sure to follow the proper steps to report that discrimination so your company can put an end to the harmful behavior. Remember, being a victim of discrimination is never your fault, and harassment should never be acceptable behavior.
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Katie McBeth is a researcher and writer out of Boise, ID, with experience in marketing for small businesses and management. Her favorite subject of study is millennials, and she has been featured on Fortune Magazine and the Quiet Revolution. She researches SEO strategies during the day, and freelances at night. You can follow her writing adventures on Instagram or Twitter: @ktmcbeth
This post was updated February 28, 2019. It was originally published February 25, 2018.