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Workplace Bullying

How you can fight back against age-based bullying on the job

“Stupid old woman.”
“Too old to keep up.”
“You should just retire.”

En español | Taunts like these, aimed at the growing number of employees over age 50, are coming from bullies in the workplace. It may be the boss, it may be a coworker or even a customer who’s hurling the invective.

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workplace bullying: what to do if you're targeted

Seniors often get victimized at work. — Photo by Enzo D./Flickr/Getty Images

How bad is the problem? In 2007, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received 5,181 claims of age-based harassment. By 2011, that number had gone up to 6,406.

“It’s definitely something we’re seeing more of,” said Raymond Peeler, senior attorney-advisor in EEOC’s Office of Legal Counsel.

What is bullying?

The Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), a Bellingham, Wash., nonprofit organization, defines bullying as repeated health-harming mistreatment of a target by one or more perpetrators, including verbal abuse and offensive nonverbal conduct.

Gary Namie, WBI’s director, sees a cold logic at work when bosses are the bullies. “Employers often want to drive out the more experienced, typically higher paid, workers,” he writes in a 2010 report on age and workplace bullying. “Though discrimination based on age is technically illegal, illegalities do not frighten employers. Their attitude is ‘so, sue us.’ Unemployed workers don’t have the money to launch a legal battle.”

A 2011 survey by CareerBuilder similarly found that 29 percent of workers age 55 and older said they’d been bullied on the job, compared with 25 percent for the 35-44 group.

That the statistics show disproportionate numbers of older workers reporting the problem comes as no surprise to Rosemary Haefner, vice president of human resources at CareerBuilder. “Mature workers are more likely to have an expertise, and more likely to have the confidence to come forward with their views.”

What does bullying look like?

Consider these recent stories from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission:

  • Robert Coffman, a heating and air conditioning technician for the city of North Richland Hills, Texas, was 56 when hired. During his six-year employment, he endured taunts from his supervisors that he was too old to keep up, was too old to do his job and was earning too much money. When he complained, management did nothing. The bullying continued until Coffman felt forced to leave the job at age 62. In 2009 the city settled his claim of age-based harassment and paid him $75,000. 
  • Mary Bassi, a waitress at a Houston strip club, was in her 50s in the summer of 2005 when 30-something managers started referring to her as “old,” making negative comments about her age and hiring younger women to work her shifts. She was fired without explanation at 56. In January 2011, an EEOC case was resolved and the club was forced to pay her $60,000 for age discrimination and wrongful discharge.

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