Although age discrimination in the workplace may not garner splashy media headlines, it has a negative effect similar to racism, sexism, and the unfair treatment of disabled people. It can impact people’s wellbeing, engagement, and productivity. What distinguishes ageism in the workplace from other types of bias is that stereotypes about older people have largely been adopted as true. Business owners and supervisors may not realize they are treating employees unfairly because they hear subtle age-related messaging in society. That’s why open dialogue about such disparities and examples are vital to curbing ageism in the workplace today.
What is Ageism or Age Discrimination?
Ageism in the workplace and other settings stems from subtle stereotypes inherent in our culture. These typically include notions that all elders suffer hearing loss, diminished physical capabilities, and cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s. When interacting with seniors, others adopt these stereotypical ideas that lead to unfair treatment.
Another facet of age discrimination stems from a societal idea that community members are forever young. From teens through 30-somethings, robust lifestyles indicate individual youth. This psychological construct positions those over 40 as old, less vibrant, and less valuable. For one person to be “young” and have all the attributes that come with that label, someone else must be considered “old.”
What are Signs of Age Discrimination in the Workplace?
It’s essential to understand that attitudes toward others based on stereotypical beliefs often lead to a form of systemic bias. Ideas that older community members cannot adequately complete workplace tasks or communicate effectively too often result in ageism in the workplace. These rank among the common ways age discrimination occurs.
- Limited Advancement: Business decision-makers may be more inclined to offer training opportunities to younger employees. The wrong-headed thinking behind this stems from the idea that younger workers learn more quickly and stay with the company longer.
- Diminished Value: Supervisors sometimes assign more complex tasks to younger employees under the stereotypical belief older workers are not capable. This type of personal bias inevitably undermines employment status, promotions, and salary increases.
- Busy Work: Tedious, repetitious tasks that require minimal thought may be assigned more frequently to older team members. This stems from a false belief they are not mentally engaged at work.
The underlying theme of ageism in the workplace is that younger employees receive preferential treatment. Supervisors and business owners also generally cater to younger employee needs in terms of time off to spend with family, better equipment on the job and perpetuate a sense of entitlement.
Effects of Ageism in the Workplace
Beyond the direct and discernible economic impact that ageism in the workplace creates, it also has a serious effect on wellbeing. A Yale University study highlights that ageism resulted in worsening mental health outcomes such as depression. Workers who buy into the false stereotypes about them tend to become less productive and enthusiastic. In essence, ageism in the workplace can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What Qualifies as Ageism in the Workplace?
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, people 40 years of age and older enjoy protection against age discrimination. The federal government passed the Age Discrimination in Employment Act in 1967 and has routinely updated the law to meet the times. For example, the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act of 1990 prohibits companies from denying workers benefits based on age. Most states also passed laws that mirror the federal regulations making unfair treatment in hiring, firing, wages, promotions, and other forms of ageism in the workplace illegal.
Ageism in the Workplace Examples
One of the challenges to ending age discrimination stems from its sometimes subtle nature. Supervisors who discriminate based on often believe they are only maximizing workforce efficiency. However, examples of ageism in the workplace paint a different picture.
Ageism in the Workplace Against Older Employees
- Harassment: Offensive conduct toward older people, such as the telling of off-color jokes, posting age-related cartoons, and gestures remain offensive.
- Discriminatory Questions: Employers who ask about a person’s age or health conditions more common in older people may be targeting them.
- Age-Based Assignments: Doling out duties based on age is a clear indication of ageism in the workplace.
Although federal and state laws tend to focus on people 40 and older, discrimination against younger people also occurs.
Ageism in the Workplace Against Younger Employees
In what some might call a type of reverse discrimination, young workers may be passed over because they lack the years of wisdom of older staff members. Inappropriate language directed at younger employees and underpaying them rank among the ways ageism in the workplace occurs.
How to Fight Against Ageism in the Workplace
The American Psychological Association suggests ageism in the workplace represents a systemic problem that requires similar measures used to stamp out discrimination based on race, gender, and disabilities. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) urges taking the following steps if you encounter age discrimination.
- Speak with your supervisor.
- Keep a log of ageism incidents.
- File a complaint with Human Resources or the appropriate person.
- Hire an attorney, if necessary.
- Consider working with a mediator.
- File a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or an appropriate state agency.
Formal approaches to ending age discrimination often have a ripple effect that heightens the awareness of administrators. But one-on-one, non-confrontational communication can improve relations among colleagues and supervisors as well.
Communication Can Reduce Ageism in the Workplace
Although age discrimination can prove frustrating, it’s essential to communicate the issues with supervisors to the best of your ability. Many otherwise good people adopt the false, stereotypical messaging around them. Pointing out age-based disparities in a polite fashion can have positive results. But it’s also necessary for older workers to be treated fairly, and that’s why you enjoy the force of law.
When it comes to your company’s benefits, make sure that they’re meeting everyone’s unique needs. Your wellbeing solution should offer content and programming that meets people where they are with respect to interests, goals, and abilities, while covering all dimensions of wellbeing. People want to see themselves represented in the tools they use and interact with, so make sure your vendors are committed to diversity in their product design and community resources.