By Tim Gould
Two recent reports indicate that it’s time to be increasingly sensitive to the issue of age discrimination in the workplace.
A recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research indicates that employers may have been somewhat shielded from age bias suits during the recession.
Professor David Neumark and Ph.D candidate Patrick Button from the University of California–Irvine recently published a working paper entitled, Did Age Discrimination Protections Help Older Workers Weather the Great Recession?
And the answer appears to be: No.
Here’s the money paragraph in Neumark’s and Button’s paper:
” … We find very little evidence that stronger age discrimination protections helped older workers weather the Great Recession, relative to younger workers. Indeed when there is evidence that stronger state age discrimination protections mediated the effects of the Great Recession, they appear to have made things relatively worse for older workers. We suggest that this may be because stronger age discrimination laws protect older workers in normal times – of which we find some evidence – but during an experience like the Great Recession severe labor market disruptions make it difficult to discern discrimination.”
In other words, the general unsettled economic atmosphere — with its resulting downsizing — made it tougher for employees to make the case that they were let go on account of age.
The study looked at 30 jurisdictions (29 states and the District of Columbia) that have tougher anti-age bias laws than the federal regs.
“There is rather clear evidence that relative unemployment rates for older workers were higher in states with the stronger age discrimination protection – especially the first 18 months or so after the Great Recession ended,” the paper said. “For women this negative conclusion is even stronger.”
Age bias is likely more difficult to prove during periods when employers are laying off a significant number of people, Neumark and Button said. “It is even possible that because stronger state age discrimination laws impose constraints on employers,” they said, “there could be ‘pent-up demand for age discrimination’ that firms act on during a sharp downturn – with more of this occurring in states with stronger age discrimination laws.”
‘Microaggressions’ in your workplace?
So what’s that mean for HR now?
Dan Kadlec, writing on the Time magazine website, says older workers are increasingly experiencing classic age discrimination. He cites a recent AARP study that says one in five workers between 45 and 74 say they have been turned down for a job because of age. About one in 10 say they were passed up for a promotion, laid off or denied access to career development because of their age.
The subtlest — and perhaps most damaging — phenomenon affecting older workers, Kadlec says, is a pattern of “microaggressions,” which are “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group,” according to research out of Columbia University.
It’s pretty clear that if this sort of thing is happening in your workplace, the situation could turn into a truly ugly legal problem. Might be time to do a little refresher training on workplace diversity.