Discerning what’s discrimination against people of whatever age can be tricky.
You might imagine that the modern-day workplace has left discrimination in the past century because the new wave of employers, HR managers and employees have all been well-educated about the value of an inclusive work environment. And yet, age discrimination in the workplace is still alive and well.
What does ageism look like? A 28-year-old female CPA might be told that she is “too young” to be a controller. A job candidate in his 50s could hear that the company is looking for a recent college graduate “with a lot of energy and no bad habits,” while an employee in her 60s might be counseled out of attending an industry conference, ostensibly to allow her to “take it easy this month.” Although ageism can certainly cut both ways, most complaints and studies have focused on the experience of the 50-plus crowd.
According to AARP, 64% of workers have witnessed or experienced age discrimination. Even though there’s been plenty of research that overturns common stereotypes about older workers, the new ways of thinking haven’t been fully absorbed yet. And so, it’s important to be alert for signs of ageism and to know your options if you or someone in your family experiences age-related discrimination in the workplace.
What Is Ageism Anyway?
The best place to start is with some legal background.
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act was passed in 1967. From that point on, age has been one of the “protected characteristics” in the workplace, which means employers cannot discriminate against employees based on their age. This includes hiring, firing, work assignments and promotions. As a side note, it’s important to know that this legal protection doesn’t cover employees of smaller companies because businesses with fewer than 20 employees are exempt from ADEA.
The intent of the legislature may have been clear-cut, yet real-life applications are anything but. For example, imagine an accounting department at an insurance company. The department is run by a female accounting manager who’s 30 years old. One of the staff accountants, Joann, is 62 and has been with the insurance company for over 25 years. Another staff accountant is a brand-new college graduate named Josh who has been with the organization for a year and a half.
Now, imagine that the performance review cycle rolls around. Joann gets average and below-average marks with a standard company-wide cost of living salary increase. Josh gets high-performance marks, the same COL increase, a performance bonus and a promotion to accounting lead. Is this age discrimination?
It’s possible that the young accounting manager has negative stereotypes about older employees, but it’s also possible that the outcome had nothing to do with age and that Josh’s performance was simply stronger than Joann’s. The manager may have observed that Joann makes repetitive mistakes, is resistant to changing her account reconciliation format to match the new standard that’s been rolled out earlier in the year and has also missed several important deadlines.
On the other hand, Josh may have gone to great lengths to get his work done on time. He may have taken the initiative to meet with professionals outside his department to understand and resolve reconciliation issues that had been lingering since before he joined the company or even volunteered to take on additional work when another accountant was out sick for a week during the year-end close.
This example wasn’t chosen to imply that there is no such thing as age discrimination, but rather to emphasize that human interactions are inherently messy. In any group of professionals, it’s virtually impossible to have two individuals with the exact same performance. People’s contributions to the company vary from person to person (and even for the same person over the course of several years). And, like it or not, we all automatically notice and recognize other people’s age as we interact with them. Age distinctions and performance differences aren’t the problems—but to have an inclusive workplace, it’s important to separate the two.
What Does Age Discrimination in the Workplace Look Like?
Most hiring managers and HR professionals would tell you that there is no ageism in their company, but reality isn’t this straightforward. It’s possible for age discrimination to go completely unnoticed. It’s also possible that benign behaviors might seem like ageism to older employees. In other words, don’t assume that you are in the clear because you work at a forward-thinking company, but also, just because something feels like ageism doesn’t make it so.
Here are a few signs of age discrimination to look out for in the workplace:
- Learning opportunities are automatically offered to younger employees—not older ones. This can include educational coursework, access to reimbursement for continuing education, professional or industry conference attendance, etc.
- Being overlooked or passed over for challenging assignments. This may also look like an unfair share of unpleasant or tedious assignments given to older employees.
- Being left out of client meetings or company activities
- A spoken or unspoken assumption that you are not entitled to take time off for family commitments because you don’t have young kids at home
- Disparaging comments and remarks about age. This could be framed as subtle and playful, with others joking about your age, retirement plans, slow typing speed, gasping for breath while coming up the stairs, etc. Or, it could be downright aggressive (e.g. pointed and/or cornering comments that pressure you to retire and free up the position for another professional).
- Being passed over for raises and promotions. As in our example above, this one can get tricky. Different raises and promotion decisions may indicate age-based discrimination or they might be a reflection of individual performance.
What’s the Best Way to Deal With Ageism in the Workplace?
Step one: Don’t assume that you or your workplace are 100% immune to age discrimination. Our brains work by relying on established stereotypes for faster processing and decision-making. Learn to recognize your own thinking patterns. Challenge your assumptions. If you see signs of ageism that aren’t directed at you, don’t distance yourself by thinking that this could never happen to you.
If you have experienced this, or if you worry about that as a possibility, here’s how to deal with ageism in the workplace:
- Invest in your continued growth and development. Read, stay up to date on trends and best practices, and push yourself to do better every year. Get a mentor, whether within your current company or outside, who is dedicated to supporting your success.
- Make a commitment to fight the stereotype of an aging professional who is uncomfortable with change and technology, low on energy and coasting without ambition. Today’s older workforce is a wealth of industry and institutional knowledge. However, there’s value in not launching into stories about “the good old days.” Don’t be the one to bring up your age as the reason why your boss should take it easy on you. Don’t fall into a belief that your workplace “owes you” something for your past contributions. Don’t buy into age stereotypes—your own thinking can affect how you act.
- Project the same level of polish and professionalism as your younger colleagues. Perhaps you are feeling secure in your position as an established contributor, but that’s no reason to falter in doing your best to represent your company.
- If you do experience signs of age discrimination, take detailed notes; write down the dates and the names of witnesses to conversations. Reach out to an employment lawyer who can assess your situation and advise you on next steps.
- Just like your younger colleagues, keep your network active and your options open. Spend some time each year updating your resume and your online profiles; make sure to follow the most current standards so you don’t date yourself. At the end of the day, the best way to prevent yourself from falling victim to age discrimination is to stay on top of your career game.
Natalia Autenrieth has audited Fortune 500 clients as part of a Big 4 team, built an accounting department as a controller of a large hospital and served as a CPA consultant to municipalities. Today, Autenrieth coaches high-achieving financial professionals and ghostwrites books and blogs on financial advice and technology. She is a fearless chef and a personal-effectiveness black belt. Link to her original post.