Age Discrimination: What It Looks Like & What to Do When It Happens

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 Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco 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 having protections in place to guard against ageism, age discrimination continues to pervade American companies: The AARP says, among workers ages 45 to 74, 72 percent of women and 57 percent 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 in the workplace 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

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.

You’re being left off of meeting invites

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.

You’re encouraged 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.

They lay 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

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