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Who Are You Calling "Old Man"?

Know the right way to respond to workplace teasing.

Q: I've worked for more than 35 years with my company. The supervisors, who are age 25 to 45, refer to me as "Old Man" despite me telling them I dislike this practice. This has happened repeatedly and often in a large group. I complained about this to Personnel. My supervisor later explained that the company has to be thinking about the employees of the future and warned me not to be running to Personnel with every complaint. Then last week, I was given my first written warning in all of my years of employment, because I had to leave work two hours for an emergency. Is any of this illegal? – Victor, Kentucky

A: Where do I begin, Victor? What you describe could be an extraordinary series of coincidences, but it seems unlikely. You're describing a work environment and management actions that clearly create a hostile workplace for you, and that hostility is related to your age. From the information you provide, I believe you have a solid basis for entering a complaint with your employer and with a government agency if your employer fails to respond.

Supervisors calling you "Old Man" repeatedly, even after you asked that they stop, is a recognized symptom of age bias and places your employer in legal jeopardy. This deliberate action of management clearly establishes their mindset toward older workers. If you have seen a reduction in your incentive pay because you’re denied work you previously performed, and that work has been shifted to younger workers, this again is a clear violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).

Finally, your supervisors appear to be retaliating by cautioning you not to engage the personnel department. This is plainly intimidation related to the age issue. In any investigation of your situation, 35 years worth of favorable performance reviews will make the recent warning after your absence highly questionable, particularly since you were dealing with a family emergency.

So, now that we've established that you have a reasonable basis for claiming age bias, what do you want to do? There are some options.

You can remain silent and hope that the situation improves. Or you can stand up for your interests and challenge your employer to examine your complaint. Deciding to complain can be a difficult decision for a long-service employee, particularly if you are not represented by a union. Consider what you have to gain and to lose by escalating your complaint. Remaining silent is also not without risk. If you elect to speak up, remain professional, objective, and unemotional. Prepare a letter describing the facts as you see them. Notify your supervisor of your intent, and schedule a meeting with the personnel department.

Be prepared to state the specific corrective actions you are looking for, such as that you will hear no more "Old Man," you'll have a fair chance at the best work assignments, the company will remove the written warning, and you'll be assured that you will not be the object of retaliation. Reassure your employer and management that you desire to remain a productive and positive employee but that you're prepared to stand up for your legal rights.

If this approach is not successful, you should consider filing a complaint with your state's equal employment opportunity agency and with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Doing this will take energy, patience, and time, but the law is on your side.

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