How to Spot—and Fight—Age Discrimination

Our Culture Beat columnist shows you what to do to beat ageism in your workplace.
Business and Workplace Author, Speaker, and Consultant,
May 03, 2012

Jack Gross’ case set a precedent. The insurance manager sued—and won—for age discrimination in Iowa after he was demoted in 2003. But later, the Supreme Court reversed the decision, stating that Gross now had to cite substantial evidence that his age was the decisive factor in his demotion. The Court’s ruling made it much harder for Gross, and everyone else, to prove a case of age discrimination in the workplace.

That’s too bad, because if you talk to any employee over the age of 55, you will hear that discrimination is alive and well. The research generally supports this, with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reporting that the number of age discrimination charges increased from 16,548 in 2006 to 23,465 in 2011.

Also, according to the Huffington Post, older layoff victims are more than twice as likely to be out of work for 99 weeks or longer. In 2011, the average unemployed worker older than 55 had been out of work for 52.4 weeks compared with 43 weeks for workers between 25 and 54 years old.

Subtle and Not-So-Subtle Signals

Whether you can prove it definitively or not, you may be living in an organizational culture that supports age discrimination. Here are some clues:

  • Challenging projects or roles on your team or organization generally go to younger but less qualified employees.

  • You are no longer consulted on important decisions in which you previously had a stake. 

  • You’re finding it difficult to get useful feedback on your performance.

  • The promotion you were due to receive was given to someone younger and less qualified than you.

  • You have been repeatedly told that you will not advance in your organization due to having too much experience or making too much money.

  • Others on your team with less-impressive results received merit increases and you did not.

  • Your organization has rolled out policies and procedures that put over-50 employees at a disadvantage.

  • You have been teased or harassed about your age.

  • You are being urged to retire.

Mitigating the Situation

If one or more of these applies to you, take action. The first thing to do is sit down with your manager and re-emphasize your enthusiasm for and commitment to your job. Proactively seek out feedback regarding areas in which you can improve. Take responsibility for your performance. Do not accuse your boss or the organization of age discrimination, as this will only make her defensive.

Next, stay apprised of the political jockeying on your team. Make sure you have a seat at the table at meetings that should involve you, even if it means inviting yourself. If you have allowed any of your skills to lapse or haven’t kept current on technological advancements, remedy this in a hurry with in-house or external training courses.

Also, do a status check on your appearance. Make sure you are always looking your best. You don't have to keep up with the latest fashion fads, but giving your wardrobe the occasional overhaul with classic pieces (and out-classing your hipster colleagues) shows that you are a consummate professional who is still very much in the game.

Meanwhile, keep a written record of any discriminatory comments and behavior you’ve experienced as specific examples are invaluable in building a case. Once you have sufficient evidence, asking for a meeting with a HR representative may be a good option. Politely express your concern, demonstrating that you have done your homework on the issue and that you are willing to pursue legal recourse if necessary.

Have you experienced age discrimination in the workplace? How did you deal with it?

Alexandra Levit is a former nationally syndicated business and workplace columnist for The Wall Street Journal and the author of Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe on Your New Path to SuccessMoney Magazine’s Online Career Expert of the Year, she regularly speaks at organizations and conferences on issues facing modern employees. 

Illustration by Russell Christian