Working Wounded: Battling Age Discrimination

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Dear WOUNDED: I am 52 and I think I'm treated differently at work because of it. Are there any protections for me?

ANSWER: Your e-mail reminded me of Peter Mustafic, 90, of Yugoslavia. He'd been silent for 40 years. Eventually, he confided to the media that his silence started when he was trying to avoid military service, but then he "just got used to it."

There is no reason to wait until you're 90 to speak out about age discrimination at work, especially given that legal protection for workers begins at age 40. Yep, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibits age discrimination against employees and job applicants starting at the ripe young age of 40. In addition to federal law, many states also have age discrimination statues. Some even go as far as to ban age discrimination at any age. For more, check out Amy DelPo and Lisa Guerin's book "Federal Employment Laws" (Nolo, 2002).

Companies are legally bound to treat older workers no differently than younger ones. The ADEA specifically prohibits the following activities: a company can't force you to retire at a certain age (with some exceptions); can't treat older workers worse than younger ones or target them for layoffs; can't give younger workers higher pay, more favorable assignments or more responsibilities; and can't make decisions based on stereotypes about older workers. For example, a company can't refuse to allow older workers access to training programs — the you-can't-teach-an-old-dog-new-tricks rationale is illegal.

A lot of us are aware of workplace regulations and lawsuits on sexual harassment but rarely do we think about age harassment. Hostile, intimating or just plain offensive jokes or cartoons about age are forms of harassment, too. Document any examples of age bias because it could become evidence. Not many lawsuits have been pursued just yet — but the fabric of the workplace is aging so this is bound to become a growth area.

Retaliate = Litigate. Companies can't retaliate legally against workers who claim age discrimination. Any negative action an employer takes — demotion, discipline, pay cuts or less favorable job assignments — is a form of retaliation that is directly addressed by the law. You may believe that the strategy our Yugoslavian friend took is the best approach when facing age discrimination. But there is no need to hit the mute button.

If the maxim in retail is location, location, location, when it comes to age discrimination it's performance, performance, performance. Any claim of age discrimination will face the question, is there a legitimate business case for the action? So keep a "just in case" file with a record of performance evaluations or complimentary e-mails from your boss.

Silence may be golden, but it can cost you when it comes to not speaking out about age discrimination.

Thought for the Week

"To me, old age is always fifteen years older than I am." Bernard Baruch

List of the Week

Old but not forgotten…Companies look to older workers

30 percent of companies are concerned about the loss of intellectual capital from retiring workers

22 percent of companies plan to rehire retirees in 2008

14 percent plan to offer incentives to keep older workers working

60 percent of workers age 50 or older plan to look for work after they retire

From: Career Builder

Bob Rosner is a best-selling author, speaker and internationally syndicated columnist. He'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic, especially if you have better ideas than he does. His books include "The Boss's Survival Guide" and "Gray Matters: The Workplace Survival Guide." Send your questions or comments to him via: bob@workingwounded.com.

ABCNEWS.com publishes a new Working Wounded column every Friday. This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

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