What Is Age Discrimination?

Age discrimination is the unfair treatment of an employee based on age rather than merit or capability. Age discrimination can be the basis for judging employees to be unqualified for a role based on being “too young,” “too old” or part of a less desirable age group.

Examples of Age Discrimination

Age discrimination can be subtle or overt, intended or unintended, but always harmful. Here are a few examples to watch out for:

Receiving Disparaging Remarks

Receiving disparaging remarks can include an employee being told that they are “too old” to do or learn something. Comments can range from being intended or delivered as a joke or being confrontational and aggressive. A comment like, “you’re too young to have this role,” used as the basis for employment decisions can be considered discriminatory.

Opportunities Going to Younger Employees

Employers may offer chances to work on new projects or gain exposure to new technologies to younger, less experienced workers over older and more experienced workers. Employers who target a certain age group to hire, promote or train for advancement may be at risk for an age discrimination claim.

Inequality of Job Benefits

If there is age discrimination, the scope of benefits can favor younger workers or even be withheld from older workers, including the amount of benefits, wages, insurance coverage, and eligibility for leave.

Refusals to Grant Salary Increases or Promotions

“Redlining” is a process of freezing an employee’s wages when they exceed the maximum threshold for a given job. Typically this will have a greater impact on workers who remain in one role for several years. This can be compounded when older workers are not offered promotional opportunities to grow their salary along with their experience.

Unjustified Forced Retirement

Certain jobs (like pilot or firefighter) have a mandatory retirement age. This is tied to safety and has been deemed as legal. Employers risk exposure to age discrimination claims when age is used as the reason for ending an employee’s tenure through either workforce reduction or simple termination.

Age Discrimination Laws You Should Know

In the 1960s, civil rights legislation flourished. Discrimination was finally starting to be defined, given parameters, and made illegal. Age should not be a factor in determining a person’s capability to perform a job. Several laws have been established to prevent age discrimination. Let’s review some.

The Age Discrimination Act of 1967

According to the Department of Labor:

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) protects certain applicants and employees 40 years of age and older from discrimination on the basis of age in hiring, promotion, discharge, compensation, or terms, conditions or privileges of employment. The ADEA is enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

This applies to employers who have 20 or more employees. Damages could include reinstatement, back wages, and/or penalties. Employees under the age of 40 are not covered by the ADEA.

Fair Housing and Employment Act of 1968

The Fair Housing and Employment Act is a California state law that prohibits age discrimination in all areas of employment against workers over age 40. This law applies to a wider range of employers than the ADEA and includes all employers with five or more full-time or part-time employees. Other states have their own legislation to protect older workers from age discrimination and several state laws complement the ADEA.

The Age Discrimination Act of 1975

Complimentary to the ADEA, this act applies to any entity who receives federal financial assistance for programs and activities. Education is a prime example of a sector covered under this act. This act serves to expand the reach of the ADEA.

Equal Pay Act of 1963

In the original Equal Pay Act, only differences in pay that occurred because of sex were in violation. The act was then amended to include age, race, color, religion, national origin, disability, genetic information, and/or retaliation.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

This act is a federal law protecting employees against discrimination based on certain specified characteristics: race, color, national origin, sex, and religion. Under Title VII, an employer may not discriminate with regard to any term, condition, or privilege of employment. While age is a characteristic missing from this list, this act inspired the creation of the ADEA in 1967 so it is important to understand. A later amendment added sexual orientation to this set of characteristics.

How To Eliminate Age Discrimination in the Workplace

Educated workforces and a culture of awareness about workplace discrimination can pre-empt age discrimination occurrences. Here are a few areas to consider:

Be Mindful of Language

Sometimes a friendly nickname can land you in age discrimination territory. Calling someone “old-timer” or “long in the tooth” even when joking can backfire. Make sure employees are not discussing older workers in a belittling fashion as that can single out older workers and result in disparate treatment.

Know the Law

Ignorance is not an excuse. Company management and HR should be trained on ADEA laws and ensure they exhibit behavior consistent with fair practices. Be sure to include front-line supervisors in training against practices that can be considered discriminatory on the basis of age. While younger workers are not protected against age discrimination under the ADEA, it’s important to be certain that opportunity and work privileges are made available based on criteria rather than age.

Review Policies and Practices

Do you have policies that appear neutral at face value but in practice tend to favor younger workers? Do you require a certain level of technical knowledge to perform basic functions? Do you have a forced retirement age? All of these policies and practices can be called disparate treatment. Have sensitivity to the actual behaviors your policies drive and notice any trends that impact certain age groups. Ensure you have policies to prohibit age discrimination and that supervisors are trained to recognize the signs of age discrimination in practice.

Provide Fair Access to Opportunity

When promotions or special work projects become available, have an internal process based on merit with established selection criteria to determine advancement. Age should not be a factor.

Make Training Available

Ensure training opportunities that arise are made available to all employees. Older workers can be ignored based on assumptions that they have a shorter career runway than younger workers. Older workers may also benefit from additional training in technical areas. Create a proactive culture where all employees feel comfortable requesting additional training.