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How to Handle Age Discrimination in your Workplace
March 14, 2020

How to Handle Age Discrimination in your Workplace

In a perfect world, every employee would be treated fairly, regardless of their age. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes, employees experience unfair treatment because of how old or young they are. This is known as age discrimination and continues to be a common issue, even in today’s diverse working world.

Since age discrimination can lead to a variety of problems for your business, it’s important to reduce it as much as possible. Let’s dive deeper into what age discrimination is and how you can handle it in your workplace.

What is Age Discrimination?

While the phrase age discrimination is commonly used, many people are unsure of exactly what it means. At its core, age discrimination occurs when an employee receives unfair treatment because of their age. There are four main types of age discrimination including:

  • Direct Age Discrimination

Direct age discrimination arises when an employee receives worse treatment than another employee because of their age. For example, if an employee in their 50s doesn’t get invited to attend an industry conference when their colleagues who  recently graduated from college do, direct age discrimination may exist.

  • Indirect Age Discrimination

If your business has a policy that applies to all your employees but puts those who are a certain age at a disadvantage, indirect age discrimination may be present. If you have a policy that states you don’t give raises to anyone without a graduate degree, your younger employees may be victims of indirect age discrimination.

  • Age Harassment

Age harassment is when an employee gets degraded or humiliated because of their age. For example, if a manager states that an older employee won’t be able to use a new tool or piece of equipment because of their age, they may be involved in age harassment.

  • Victimization

If an employee makes an age discrimination complaint and is treated badly as a result, they face what’s known as victimization. Let’s say an employee informs their supervisor of their co-worker’s age discrimination complaint. If their supervisor treats them poorly, they are likely facing victimization.

How Does Age Discrimination Happen In The Workplace?

Unfortunately, age discrimination can be seen in all types of work environments, so you’re bound to experience it regardless of if you own a restaurant, construction firm, or insurance company.

It’s particularly problematic in today’s world because there are many older people in the workforce. Individuals are prolonging their working lives for financial reasons and retiring much later than they did in the past.

Often, professionals don’t even realize that they’re discriminating based on an employee’s age.

For example, an employer may tell an older employee that a management position isn’t right for them because it involves travel. They may believe that the employee is unable to travel as much as a younger employee and discriminate against them as a result. This may be something they do subconsciously without even realizing that it’s unfair. The older employee may be just as willing and able to travel as a younger employee.

There are plenty of examples like this one where employers and employees simply don’t know they’re engaging in age discrimination. They are doing what they believe is best for their organizations without giving age discrimination a second thought.

How To Recognize The Signs of Age Discrimination

As an employer, it’s in your best interest to pay close attention to the most common signs of age discrimination. After all, you’re legally obligated to foster a workplace that’s free of discrimination and gives employees of all chances a fair chance to succeed.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) stops employers from discriminating against current and prospective employees who are at least 40 due to their age. It protects employees from age discrimination during interviewing, hiring, promotions, compensation evaluations, and more. Here are some of the telltale signs of age discrimination.

Older Employees Being Fired or Made Redundant

It’s legal to fire an employee. However, firing them based on their age is illegal.

For example, imagine you own a software company. You have a few older employees in their 50s and 60s who need more time to learn the new features of the software.

If you decide to fire them and replace them with tech-savvy employees who you believe can learn the features faster, you’re engaging in age discrimination. According to the The Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972, it’s illegal for most employers to fire employees because of their race, gender, disability, genetic information, or age.

if you’re in a situation where you’re frustrated because older employees aren’t learning a piece of technology as quickly as you’d like them to, firing them isn’t the solution. Instead, consider hiring additional trainers to help them or creating tutorials to expedite the process.

As an employer, it is your job to give everyone a fair chance to learn your software. As long as employees catch on in a reasonable amount of time, there’s no reason to fire them.

Experiencing or Experiencing Ageist Commentary

Ageism refers to discrimination and stereotyping based on an individual’s age. If someone is ageist, they may make it known through certain comments.

Let’s say you hire an older woman to organize inventory at your warehouse. The woman is in her mid 50s and quick on her feet. She gets inventory stored in its proper place as soon as it arrives and is great at her job.

Eventually, your business grows so you decide to hire another warehouse employee to help the woman organize inventory.

This employee is a 20 something year old man who’s fresh out of college. The man makes constant comments about the older woman’s age. He says things like “Wow! You’re fast for someone your age” or “I’m surprised you’re still working. Aren’t you ready to retire?”

These types of ageist comments can make the woman feel uncomfortable and unaccepted in your workplace. Therefore, it’s your job as an employer to stop them as soon as possible.

Becoming Isolated At The Workplace

Workplace isolation and age discrimination coincide. Workplace isolation occurs when an employee feels isolated or unwelcome at work. They may believe they have nobody to talk to and have a difficult time relating to their co-workers. Unfortunately, workplace isolation can discourage them from performing to the best of their ability and motivate them to look for a new job.

Let’s say you own a small business with five employees. Four of the employees are in their 20s and 30s while one is in their 60s. The employees in their 20s and 30s eat lunch together every day and have great relationships with one another. The 60 year old employee doesn’t get invited to their lunches and feels left out.

Since your employees likely spend much of their week at work, social isolation can be an emotional challenge for them. If you notice any social isolation as a result of age, it’s your responsibility to do something about it. Encourage a team environment and friendly culture where everyone feels included and appreciated.

Being Looked Past For Promotions

Most employees have the desire to advance in their careers through promotions and pay raises. After all, nobody wants to be “stuck” in the same position for years without any advancement. As an employer, you get to choose who gets promoted. When trying to figure out who deserves a promotion, consider the work ethic and accomplishments of all of your employees.

Is there an employee who always goes the extra mile to ensure success? Has one employee exceeded their sales goals? These are the types of employees that may thrive in a higher position.

If you have an employee that has worked tirelessly to meet your business goals for the past few years but know they are approaching retirement, don’t overlook them for a promotion. Doing so would be age discrimination.

Even older employees who may only have several years left in the workplace deserve a promotion. As long as they’ve worked hard and provided value, it’s important to promote them. Don’t promote a less deserving employee for the sole reason that they’re younger and will likely be at your organization for longer.

How to Decrease Age Discrimination In Your Business

It can be challenging to handle age discrimination in your business. Age discrimination is an uncomfortable topic that you may be tempted to ignore. However, ignoring it can do more harm than good. It can lead to lawsuits, workplace tension, a damaged reputation, and other serious consequences.

Here are some tips on how to handle age discrimination in your business.

1. Raise Awareness

As we previously explained, some of your employees may engage in age discrimination without even realizing it. They may make inappropriate comments related to another employee’s age or overlook an older employee for a promotion. Therefore, it’s important to raise awareness of age discrimination and make it known that this is a common problem in many workplaces.

You may want to create an anti age discrimination policy and clearly outline it in your employee handbook. Once you do, share it with your employees and state that you don’t tolerate age discrimination. You can ask all your employees to sign a form that states they understand your policy and will abide by it.

Knowledge is power, so by simply informing your employees of age discrimination, you can prevent unfair treatment and problems down the road.

2. Continue To Expand Knowledge

Your job isn’t done once you create an anti age discrimination policy and bring awareness to it. You should continue to discuss this topic with your employees and remind them of its consequences. Ask human resource professionals to come to your workplace and discuss age discrimination with your employees. Host regular trainings and workshops for managers that help the spot and stop age discrimination.

Get creative and think about how you can continue to stay up-to-date on common age discrimination problems and keep your employees educated. Encourage your employees to come to you any time they suspect a case of age discrimination. Make it clear that you won’t treat them differently if they bring any cases to your attention.

Our Final Thoughts

It can be tough to prevent ageism in the workplace. However, this doesn’t excuse you or your employees from treating each and every employee fairly, despite their age. By raising awareness and continuing to expand knowledge on age discrimination, you can create a healthy work environment with happy, productive employees.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is an age discrimination lawsuit?

If an employee believes they have been discriminated against because of their age, they can pursue a lawsuit against you as the employer.

How common is age discrimination in the workplace?

Sadly, age discrimination is a serious issue. A survey by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission discovered that more than 6 in 10 employees age 45 and older have seen or faced some form of age discrimination at work.

What are some examples of age discrimination?

If an employee gets fired, overlooked for a promotion, or made fun of because of their age, they are a victim of age discrimination.

Fora Financial

Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author's alone, and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Fora Financial is a working capital provider to small business owners nationwide. In addition, the Fora Financial team provides educational information to the small business community through their blog, which covers topics such as business financing, marketing, technology, and much more. If you’d like to see a topic covered on the Fora Financial blog, or want to submit a guest post, please email us at [email protected].