Leveling the Playing Field for Older Workers

New research underscores the persistent problem of age discrimination in employment.
By: | July 19, 2018 • 4 min read
Topics: Employment Law
age discrimination

When the Age Discrimination in Employment Act was signed into law in 1967, its goal was to prevent employers from discriminating or taking adverse action against workers over the age of 40. Here we are, more than half a century later, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that goal is still somewhere in the distance.

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Consider, for instance, a recent lawsuit filed against Volkswagen AG. The collective action complaint alleges that Volkswagen AG, Volkswagen Group of America Inc. and Volkswagen Chattanooga Operations “are engaged in a company-wide policy of age discrimination against employees 50 years and older,” according to Sanford Heisler Sharp, the law firm that filed the claim.

Plaintiff Jonathan Manlove, 60, a former supervisor in VW’s Chattanooga auto manufacturing facility, brought the suit on behalf of himself and “similarly situated” U.S. employees of Volkswagen AG and its subsidiaries, according to Sanford Heisler Sharp. A key component of the suit is what the firm describes as VW’s attempt to “reboot by rebranding Volkswagen as a younger, sleeker company.” As part of that effort, the lawsuit claims, the company is striving to jettison older workers from its management ranks by implementing illegal age discrimination policies.

For its part, Volkswagen has stated in a 2017 press release that it expects its management ranks to become “younger and slimmer,” which it hopes will make the organization “faster and more efficient at the same time as providing new motivation for junior managers.

“Volkswagen must complete comprehensive preparations for the challenges and the competitive environment faced by the industry,” the statement continues.

At the crux of this complaint is an employee who has allegedly suffered an adverse employment action based on something other than his or her individual merit, says Kevin Sharp, a Nashville, Tenn.-based managing partner at Sanford Heisler Sharp.

Age discrimination, he says, “reduces a worker down to a number—irrespective of his or her actual talent—and then penalizes that worker for something out of their control.”

A new Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report suggests we will continue to see employees like Manlove coming forward with age discrimination-related complaints.

The EEOC report cites a new AARP study, in which the group studied American workers aged 45 and older. In its research, AARP found six out of 10 older workers saying they have seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace, with 90 percent of these employees saying age discrimination is common. Still, just 3 percent of those who have been subjected to discrimination have reported it to their employer or a government agency.

Susan Weinstock, vice president of financial resilience programming at AARP, attributes these findings to “too many myths” that persist around experienced workers, “like [the misconception] that they are less productive, know nothing about technology and are coasting toward retirement.”

Weinstock points to a handful of achievements that help dispel such notions.

“Baby boomers are the generation that invented the Internet, the personal computer and the Intel processor. And there’s no reason to assume that technical skills decline with age,” she says, adding that AARP research shows employees in the 55-and-up age cohort are both the most engaged and motivated age group in the labor force.

“Another great asset that older workers bring to the table is applied skills, often called soft or baseline skills, such as professionalism, calm under pressure, relationship building and emotional intelligence.”

HR can take significant steps to help bring these skills to the fore, and to level the playing field for older employees in the workplace and in the search for employment.

“HR leaders should examine their job postings, since a lot of older candidates might shy away from applying for jobs that emphasize a ‘young culture,’ or that they are looking for ‘digital natives,’ ” says Weinstock.

“Organizations should recruit and hire older workers,” she continues. “This could entail hiring them back on a consulting basis after they’ve left or hiring them full-time. There’s no reason to believe that someone in their 50s doesn’t want full-time work or a second career. At 50, we probably have at least 20 more years of work ahead of us, and that’s plenty of time to bring their skills and talents to open positions.”

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Weinstock also urges employers to embed age as an element in diversity and inclusion strategies, as well as working to retain older workers.

“One way they can do that is to build mixed-age teams,” she says, adding that research shows turnover rates go down while productivity and performance increases among multigenerational teams.

HR leaders can also foster a workplace culture that recognizes and rejects age stereotypes and comments in the same way it rejects sexist or racist stereotypes and comments, says Cathy Ventrell-Monsees, special assistant to EEOC Acting Chair Victoria Lipnic.

“They can promote practices that value age and experience as part of their diversity and inclusion efforts,” she says, “and can have age-diverse hiring panels and teams and cross-generational mentoring; practices that recognize the value of age and experience can help promote more positive attitudes.”

Ultimately, age discrimination persists in the workplace “because too many people think age negatively affects ability. It doesn’t,” says Ventrell-Monsees. “People used to think that women couldn’t do certain jobs, and most now recognize that is both wrong and not true. Ability varies considerably from one person to another of the same age or the same gender. That’s why the law requires employers to judge people based on ability, not age.”

Mark McGraw is a freelance writer who has covered human resources for nearly a decade. He lives in the Philadelphia suburbs and earned a bachelor's degree in professional writing from Kutztown University.

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