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How to Handle Comments About Your Age at Work

Jokes and other remarks from coworkers could be warning signs of discrimination

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Sometimes the comments come as a joke about being “over the hill” or “teaching an old dog new tricks.” Other times they are coded language about being “overqualified” for a new opportunity. But ageist comments, even when disguised as humor, can be demoralizing and could signal more serious bias problems in the workplace.

It’s no secret that older adults often encounter ageism on the job. AARP research has found that roughly two in three adults age 50 and older in the workforce (62 percent) think older workers face age discrimination. And nearly one-third (32 percent) have reported hearing negative comments about an older worker’s age within the past two years. In fact, 17 percent have received such comments directly about their own age.

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Ageist remarks can come as a shock and, depending on who’s making them, can have serious implications for both the worker and the company. Even advocates who fight workplace discrimination say that the best way to respond to ageist comments isn’t always clear.  

“Part of me wants to help people just get through it all and navigate it, and part of me wants people to stand up and shout from the rooftops, ‘This is wrong; don’t do it,’ and call out the behavior,” says workplace ageism expert Patti Temple Rocks, author of I’m Still Not Done: It’s Time to Talk About Ageism in the Workplace. Of course, that’s sometimes easier said than done, especially when the comments may come from people who can have a direct effect on your livelihood.

How you choose to respond to comments might depend on who is making the remarks.

Comments from coworkers or clients

More than one-third of workers may begin experiencing age-related comments before age 45, according to a 2019 survey from one career website. Sometimes these might be brushed off as “just jokes,” but they’re still not appropriate in the workplace, says employment attorney Sally Culley, a partner at RumbergerKirk, a business law firm.

“Ageist jokes are not appropriate in the workplace, though they often seem innocuous enough and the person making the joke may not have bad intentions at heart,” she says. “Often this type of behavior can be shut down with a firm ‘I don’t think jokes about my age are funny.’ ”

Workplace culture expert Megan M. Carle, author of Walk Away to Win: A Playbook to Combat Workplace Bullying, agrees. Sometimes coworkers just need education, she says. Calling out ageism by saying you’re recognizing a pattern of word choice that isn’t okay can be all that’s needed to correct an impolite office mate. “Talk to the person one-on-one,” she says. “You might say something like, ‘I’m guessing you’re not aware of this because I know, as a coworker, your intent would not be to negatively impact me in the way that your choice of language is,’ ” Carle suggests.

If the conduct continues, review the company’s policies about age discrimination issues, says Culley. “If there are no policies that address the reporting of discrimination issues, then the concerns should be raised with a supervisor, manager or HR professional.” The one thing you don’t want to do is retaliate with similar behavior, she says, “perhaps by pointing to the youth or lack of experience of the [people] making the ageist jokes, as that just encourages and escalates the conduct.”

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If the comments come from clients, your company should also intervene to support you, Rocks says. “You need to report it through the proper channels for your own employer and let them deal with it. You have every right to say, ‘Do not put me in that situation again,’ ” she says.

Comments from supervisors

While comments from coworkers can suggest a workplace culture that doesn’t fully value older workers, comments from a supervisor can be more troublesome — and may even indicate potential threats to opportunities for career advancement.

When she was younger, Shannon DalPozzal routinely pursued new certifications and continuing education opportunities through her employer. After more than two decades on the job, however, she says that her requests started getting turned down, even as those from employees with much less tenure were approved. When she inquired about the reason, she says, she was told that because she was nearing retirement eligibility, management had decided there was no need for her to attend the classes.

DalPozzal objected, saying she had no intention of retiring. But her discussions and emails didn’t change things. Ultimately, she decided to leave that employer and pursue her writing career, which she had done part time for years, while also volunteering with various causes. “The travel writing I had that I built up during [my previous] career has served me very well for finding that passion and joy in life,” she says.

Comments from a supervisor may indicate that the individual harbors some bias, Culley says. In such cases, she recommends having a private conversation with the supervisor. If that doesn’t resolve the situation, consider reporting the matter in accordance with the company’s policies related to age or other forms of discrimination. If such policies do not exist, it may be a good idea to report the issue to another supervisor, manager or HR professional, she says.

Rocks advises that people experiencing such comments from a supervisor should fully document each instance for future reference. Write down the date and time the comment or incident occurred, and exactly what was said. Note anyone who witnessed or heard the incident. Keep your documentation in a place where you can readily access it if you need it. Carle adds that having coworkers who can support you and help you navigate the situation can be helpful too.

Comments from hiring managers

What can you do when a hiring manager says something age-related?

David Budin says he experienced this. He had been a freelance writer for years but was considering returning to full-time employment as an editor. As he sat in interviews with much younger hiring managers, the responses were often the same. “At the end, every one of them wound up saying things like, ‘Well, with your experience, I don’t think you’ll be excited about this job,’ or, ‘With all you’ve done, I think you’ll be bored here,’ ” he says. “I didn’t really say anything to them, because I knew it was pointless.” He adds, “I just figured that that was coded language for, ‘I think you’re too old.’ ”

Rocks says it’s possible to challenge such perceptions — along with the oft-used “overqualified” designation — in the moment by redirecting the conversation to your accomplishments or enthusiasm for the job. Explain why the position is a good fit for your skills and goals at this moment in your career. Before your interview, look at the employer’s website, social media accounts and other resources to find relevant topics to discuss in your conversation with the hiring manager.

While age discrimination in hiring is prohibited under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act, that law does not specifically ban employers from asking age-related questions or making comments. Several states — California, Connecticut, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — do have their own laws that prohibit age-related questions during the hiring process. In general, it’s best to keep the conversation on your skills, interest and ability rather than directly confront possible age bias in hiring. But if you find a remark to be disconcerting, make sure to document it the best you can for future reference.

When to take action

Culley says that when the comments and behavior become “so severe and pervasive that a reasonable person would find them to be intimidating, hostile or abusive,” the employee may have a claim against the employer for creating a hostile work environment. Even off-the-cuff comments can be used as evidence in a discrimination or harassment claim based on an adverse employment action, like being fired or not being offered a promotion. First, be sure to follow any internal policies for reporting such issues, she says. And remember that some smaller employers may not be subject to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, although there might be local rules or ordinances that would apply. Moreover, not every inappropriate comment or joke will support a legal claim, she says.

Proving age discrimination can be difficult, so be sure to have as much documentation and corroboration as possible. And sometimes efforts to educate colleagues, coworkers, supervisors and others can also help raise awareness of ageism and create change. “Employers should be intentional about valuing the contributions of all employees and encouraging collaboration with one another,” Culley says.

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