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What You Can (and Can't) Do About Age Bias

Understand your rights, and the attitudes you may face.

Here are five things you can’t do about discriminatory employer behavior or decisions:

  1. You can’t compel employers to communicate: If you don’t hear back from an employer you applied to or interviewed with, stop thinking it’s you or something you did or didn’t do. Contemporary recruiting practices seldom provide information to applicants. There is often no acknowledgement other than an auto-reply message, long delays or no invitation to interview, no feedback following interviews, and no explanation or notice of rejection. Employers are often overwhelmed by the sheer volume of applicants and have little choice but to acknowledge resumes via auto-reply e-mail, if at all. Employers have become extremely cautious about what they say to candidates and to employees. Stop expecting promptness and responsiveness; it’s up to you to be persistent.
  2. You can’t dictate a company’s hiring decisions or behaviors: Managers and executives will generally make decisions about hiring and firing based on the organization’s financial condition. Staff reductions do not differ in motivation. This may not seem fair, but here’s the deal: Older and long-service employees often receive better pay than younger coworkers, and health care and retirement-income costs tend to be higher for older workers. Employers may decide to lay off more costly employees. This is permissible as long as age is not the basis for the decision.
  3. You generally can’t challenge management’s authority to make employment decisions: Unless you have sufficient evidence or cause to believe that age played a part in promotional decisions, the law preserves management’s authority to make employment decisions. You may not agree, you may not like it, and there’s not much you can do other than file an age discrimination complaint or claim. This is not an action that will endear you to your employer, but the law prohibits retaliation against employees who file such claims. It may be uncomfortable, but it may be your only option.
  4. You can’t challenge legitimate job requirements: Employers are permitted to establish bona fide (legitimate) job qualifications, and they can even refer to age. For example, An advertising agency can require that a model for teen clothing not be older than a given age. Employers are generally very careful about setting job qualifications—even though they may appear discriminatory. Work in a grocery store may require an ability to routinely lift packages up to 60 pounds. There are cases when you can request a “reasonable accommodation” to permit you to perform the job, but this is generally the only way around job requirements. Sometimes it’s simply necessary to look for a different job.
  5. Evaluate industry patterns and company cultures: Laws and management principles notwithstanding, there are certain industries and companies that are historically, culturally, and possibly financially, predisposed to favor younger workers. You can lament and complain about this situation, but the practical thing to do is to consider other industries or occupations. You can also seek out that exceptional employer that values workers for their capabilities and contributions, regardless of age.

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