Is Age Bias Old News? Think Again

It may be a common misconception that discrimination in the workplace has all but Workplace discrimination doesn't stop at gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation.vanished. While many businesses have successfully moved beyond treating employees differently based on their race, gender or sexual orientation, these are not the only factors that contribute to workers’ diversity. Businesses that are not attentive to proper hiring practices in regards to employee age may find themselves slipping into habits that are not only detrimental to company morale and diversity, but also legally reprehensible. Corporate training programs should address this issue for hiring managers as well as all human resource staff, so that it is clear that bias based on age will not be tolerated.

A Numbers Game

Think that age bias is mere myth? Consider a recent lawsuit raised in Los Angeles that brought the issue to new light, and resulted in 66-year-old Bob Nickel being awarded $26 million.

HR Morning reported that the case—a landmark in L.A. legal history—began in 2008, when major office supply retailer Staples bought Dutch delivery company Corporate Express. At the time, Nickel had been working at Corporate Express for about six years as a facilities manager.

Although his performance reviews had always been positive, Nickel said his treatment by upper management changed drastically following the turnover. In an effort to push out veteran employees like himself, who received higher compensation, managers created a hostile environment.

According to Nickel, his new supervisors employed tactics such as poking fun at him during corporate meetings and referring to him by names such as “old goat” and “old coot.” After he declined a manager’s request that he resign, Nickel said he was falsely accused of committing infractions such as stealing a bell pepper from the cafeteria, and that management even asked a receptionist to make a false statement against him. Despite her refusal, Nickel was fired in 2011.

Nickel decided to take his claim to court and sued Staples for age bias. In 2014, the jury awarded Nickel $26 million in total damages, which included $22.8 million in punitive damages.

Rethinking Bias

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, national age bias protection begins at age 40, and some states set the limit even younger. The law protects individuals from being treated unfairly or with hostility because of their age at any point in the employment process, including hiring, training, compensation, assignments, promotions, and layoff, among other terms and conditions.

While Nickel’s case may seem a particularly stark violation of such guidelines, the Huffington Post reported that older Americans often face a “first to be fired, last to be hired” scenario, particularly during periods of economic downturn. Take, for example, statistics from the U.S. Government Accountability Office comparing periods of joblessness for employees based on age. While the average length of unemployment for younger workers is 37 weeks, that of older adults is nearly 56 weeks, reported the GAO. Additionally, employees who are more advanced in years typically face a more significant pay cut when they do find new jobs compared to young workers. One older Chicago resident and job seeker described his own experience with this scenario, responding to a prospective employer’s e-mail asking about his wage requirements

“I decided to go for it and put down a figure that was about three-quarters of what I had been earning,” explained Jim Pawlak, as quoted by the news source. But 15 minutes after sending the email, Pawlak was rejected. “They saw my salary expectation and bam!—end of their interest in me.”

Faced with such statistics and stories similar to that of Pawlak’s, older workers are fighting back. According to Forbes, a quarter of all complaints filed with the EEOC in 2012 were related to age discrimination, and more older adults are taking a stand to ensure that they are treated fairly, not just during hiring and firing, but throughout each stage of the employment process.

The Perks of Older Workers

Although employee training programs for hiring staff should certainly emphasize the rise of such claims for financial reasons, development courses should also highlight what companies have to gain from hiring and retaining older workers.

The AARP reported that common myths and misconceptions about aging employees include fears that they will have an increased likelihood of missing work due to illness or injury, be resistant to or inexperienced with new technology, or be less productive than younger workers. According to the source, however, such assumptions are frequently the opposite of reality. Years of experience can provide older employees with more perspective and flexibility, as well as leadership qualities. Similarly, the organization reported that they are often motivated by more altruistic factors, such as community and loyalty, than their younger counterparts who may favor personal gain. Companies should be open to harnessing these capabilities and talents rather than shunning them.

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