Discrimination exists in various forms in workplaces and other social settings, and it’s important to learn how to spot discriminatory practices. Some discriminatory acts are overt, while others are done in a more subtle manner, making them more difficult to prove. 

Both younger and older individuals can fall victim to age discrimination in employment. Even though companies are not allowed to fire or recruit someone based on their age, determining whether someone’s actions were motivated by ageism can be tricky. We'll go through the laws that can protect you, as well as the different types and indicators of age discrimination at work.

Age Discrimination - Definition and Law

Age bias, or ageism, is a form of discrimination against individuals or groups based on their age. This includes stereotyping, harassing, and discriminating against workers or job applicants because of their age. 

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act, or ADEA, is a federal law that was enacted in 1967 to protect employees aged 40 or older from discrimination at work. This age discrimination law does not apply to workers under the age of 40 and companies with less than 20 employees. However, some states have passed laws that do apply to those groups.

The ADEA covers the following (excluding military personnel and independent contractors):

  • Companies with 20 or more employees 
  • State and local governments, as well as the federal government
  • Labor organizations 
  • Employment agencies

Age discrimination is prohibited in all phases and aspects of employment. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or EEOC, which was established by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, reported that more than 6 in 10 employees aged 45 and over said they have experienced or witnessed age discrimination in the workplace. Of course, many cases of discrimination are still unreported, and 76% of older employees find that age discrimination is a barrier to employment.

Although discrimination against older employees is unlawful, it can be difficult to prove because claimants must show that they were fired, demoted, or denied an assignment entirely based on their age. Companies may be able to justify such actions by exploiting legal loopholes. 

Types of Age Discrimination

Age discrimination can be classified into the following four categories.

1. Direct Discrimination

Direct discrimination occurs when you are unfairly treated in comparison to another person or group of people in a similar situation because of your age.

There are instances when this form of discrimination is permitted if the employer or organization can show that it’s justified. This is referred to as objective justification and can involve situations when applicants are refused employment because their age group is especially vulnerable to injury in a particular role.   

2. Indirect Discrimination

When an organization has a policy or manner of functioning that applies to everyone but disadvantages those of your age protected class, this is known as indirect discrimination.

Indirect age discrimination, like direct age discrimination, is legal if the employer or organization can demonstrate that the policy is justified, which is also considered objective justification.

3. Victimization

Victimization is when you are treated unfairly because you filed a complaint alleging age discrimination. It can also happen if you are assisting someone who has filed an age discrimination case. 

4. Harassment

Harassment happens when someone belittles, insults, or degrades you on the basis of your age. There are no examples of age discrimination and situations in which harassment can be legally justified. You will not be able to bring a harassment claim against an employer or company if they can show they did everything they could to prevent their employees from acting in that manner. In that case, you can still bring a claim against the harasser.

Indications of Age Discrimination in the Workplace

Discrimination in the workplace is more common than you might imagine. If you can relate to these warning signs, there is a good chance your employer or colleagues are engaging in discrimination based on age.

Noticing a pattern of employing mostly younger staff 

Many employers and companies may never admit it, yet they may be looking for younger employees in particular, which could be due to various misconceptions that people may have. If you notice that your company has an age-based recruiting pattern, this is a red flag.

If you hear your employer using the clichéd term “overqualified”, that may also be an indication of age discrimination. 

Being passed over for a promotion

Your age discrimination case will gain credibility if you can show a pattern of older workers being passed over for promotions. This would include cases where promotions were given to younger workers who may or may not have the necessary qualifications and where there’s no proof that the decisions were merit-based.

Feeling isolated or being left out

Employers can make it difficult for you to participate in activities and be a part of the team by excluding you from decision making or from meetings. They can even go a step further and move or isolate your desk location from your department or transfer you to an entirely different office, which would be a clear sign of discrimination on the basis of age. 

Seeing older employees pushed out of work

Nowadays, layoffs aren’t that rare of an occurrence, with a wave of cuts sweeping through organizations across the US and other parts of the world. To evade any legal issues, companies can add younger employees to the layoff group to make it seem like they’re not discriminating against older employees. It’s certainly easier to prove age discrimination if your employer is solely firing off older employees. 

Similarly, companies can also eliminate a job position by simply changing the job title and recruiting a younger employee. Unfortunately, this is a widespread practice across various companies, so workplace age discrimination is something you should keep an eye out for.

Employers that speak to you in a condescending manner or are constantly making inappropriate age-related comments may be harassing you. There is a thin line between joking and harassing in such situations. These micro-aggressions, whether deliberate or unintentional, could indicate a deeper problem.

Being forced or “encouraged” to retire 

Employers and businesses can use early retirement incentives as a ruse to entice older employees to leave. Even if an employee tries to refuse such an offer, which isn’t easy, there’s no guarantee the older staff member won’t be terminated anyway. 

Only a few professions, such as law enforcement or the Army, are permitted to impose a mandatory retirement age. However, some companies still attempt to implement this, even though it’s prohibited by the Age Discrimination Act.

Filing a Complaint over Age Discrimination

An ADEA-protected employee must submit a federal law complaint with the EEOC and a state-based claim with the appropriate state body or just one of the two. A worker must make a claim within 300 days of the discriminatory act, or 180 days if it is an ADEA claim.

Any instance of discrimination should be documented, and having a witness will certainly help. You’ll be required to present evidence of any type of harassment that has had a detrimental impact on you or your health. 

Submitting and pursuing an EEOC age discrimination claim is difficult, and your opponent will most certainly hire an experienced lawyer that is familiar with the strategies used to get rid of older employees.

Make sure to hire a good attorney because you need someone on your side to protect your rights and file the most effective claim possible. 

Bottom Line

After reading this article, you should have a better understanding of which laws protect you, how to recognize different types of harassment, and what to do if you become a victim. Age discrimination in employment is not rare, unfortunately. 

To protect yourself, you must be aware of your rights and take the necessary actions, despite the fact that the process will be difficult. While the implementation of the ADEA was a significant step forward in defending employees' rights, age discrimination continues to plague many companies.