Make Timely Complaints About Ageism

Category: Employment Discrimination

More Info: Employment Litigation

Imagine this: work colleagues regularly taunt you about your age. They call you names, laugh at how you walk and ignore your input.

On the one hand, you don’t want to complain because you don’t want to play the victim or make things worse. On the other hand, you wake up every morning feeling anxious about going to work. You’ve noticed how exhausted you feel at the end of the day. And you know how deeply this harassment impacts you mentally, emotionally and physically.

Does this behavior sound ridiculous in today’s workplace? Yes, it does. But sadly, it is real.

Last month, a lawsuit against toymaker Mattel revealed some of the most noxious, blatant behavior, including a barrage of ageist taunts, mocking and harassment.

The question is, what do you do about it?

“When someone experiences harassment or discrimination on the basis of their age, speaking up is difficult in a culture of compliance,” explains Mahir Nisar, principal at employment litigation firm Nisar Law Group. “For many, the authoritative nature of the employer dictates one’s openness to share their experiences due to the concern of losing opportunity.”

In other words, speaking up creates a fear of retaliation or future opportunities. Even worse–the fear of lost employment.

The Danger in Not Speaking Up

The obvious danger in not speaking up is that the behavior will continue. And, an ageist workplace will not limit bad behavior to just one person–anyone can become a target. By reporting the complaint to HR, the company then has an opportunity to make corrective changes

Another essential reason to speak up is that not doing so could jeopardize your legal position, should further action be required.

In the November 2021 decision for Thompson v. Dekalb County, the court dismissed the age case. According to the lawsuit, head attorney Overtis Brantley stated the county’s leadership was tired of looking at all these old people and that she wanted to hire baby lawyers in the law department. The lawsuit also states that, “Whenever Brantley was hiring a new person to the law department, she would say: ‘I’ve got another baby lawyer. I’m filling the nursery’.”

After Thompson was terminated, Brantley hired several younger attorneys to replace him. However, because the ageist statement did not surface until after Thompson’s firing, the court did not deem it conclusive, and the case was dismissed.

In the UK, an experienced financial adviser vying for CEO lost an age discrimination case after being told he was not getting any younger and that the newly appointed CEO was younger and more energetic.

The employment tribunal hearing his case pointed to the fact that the ageist references were only reported after termination.

“When you speak up for yourself through a written complaint, specifying how your rights are being violated due to age-motivated harassment, you advocate for yourself and others like you,” says Nisar.

“Your voice can alter the workplace environment and cater to a culture of accountability to the institution on their promises on diversity, equity and inclusion.”

Action not only helps older workers currently impacted by ageism, but it also helps to create a more age-inclusive workplace so younger employees may be protected from social exclusion in the future.

How to Make an Internal HR Complaint

It’s not only the embarrassment or fear of reporting age bias and discrimination that challenges the workplace. According to Nisar, one problem is that people are not educated on how to complain in a protected fashion.

“When someone experiences age-based harassment or discrimination in terms of being treated differently than others within their workplace, it is important to raise these concerns in a manner protected by law,” Nisar advises.

To make a complaint, Nisar suggests employees:

  1. Document a complaint by sending an email to HR. Describe the treatment being experienced, specifying the age discrimination and harassment. Be sure to include what was said or done to you and by whom.
  2. Retain a copy of the email. Consider sending a blind copy to a personal, non-work-related email.

“Your employer has a duty to investigate and correct the issues you bring to their attention. Secondly, they are not permitted by law to retaliate against you for making a complaint, so they are reluctant when you have a paper trail evidencing your protected complaint,” says Nisar.

Other Ways To Protect Yourself

When you experience age discrimination or harassment with comments and behaviors that impact you mentally, emotionally or even physically, it is important to seek help from a mental health provider.

“Too often we do not address how these incidents impact who we are and how we see ourselves. We silence ourselves and tolerate the pain and agony of our experiences when we do not have to,” says Nisar, who always advises clients to seek mental health treatment to help recover from their experiences and move on with life in a healthy and positive way.

If you make a written complaint to HR and the behavior continues, consider filing a complaint at the federal level. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) forbids age discrimination against people aged 40 or older. It does not protect workers under the age of 40, although some states have laws that protect workers of any age.

The ADEA is administered by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), where complaints are filed. Non-federal workers have up to 180 days to file a complaint, whereas federal employees must contact an EEO counselor within 45 days.

The first and most crucial step for companies to address ageism is acknowledging it exists. Then, it’s time to take action!

  1. Train employees on the myriad of ways that age bias shows up across the age spectrum.
  2. Ensure “age inclusion” is part of your people strategy across all policies and processes.
  3. Conduct anonymous employee surveys to measure employee beliefs about age and aging in your workplace. Then build strategies around the gaps.
  4. Avoid using generational labels that perpetuate age stereotypes.
  5. Proactively create diverse, age-inclusive teams to dismantle stereotypes.
  6. Watch internal and external communications to avoid accidental exclusion or benevolent ageism.
  7. Hire an expert to increase company-wide understanding and awareness.

With awareness, people can create needed workplace change. Like any culture change initiative, combatting age bias is an ongoing process. Real change requires regular reminders, process checks and transparency. Most of all, workplace change decelerates through measurable goals and leadership commitment and accountability.

For any organization that wants to succeed in the future of work, age-inclusive, age-equitable workplace culture is not optional.

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