The federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act protects workers 40 or older from being discriminated against in hiring, firing, pay, work assignments, promotions, layoffs or other aspects of the workplace because of their age.
Even a policy that treats all workers the same regardless of age can be seen as illegal under the law if it disproportionately impacts older employees.
An employer needs to think carefully before taking negative action against an older worker to ensure the decision cannot be interpreted as age bias.
Still, for an employer to be held accountable, the employee must show that the action was motivated by his or her age.
Take, for example, a recent Virginia case in which an executive administrative assistant at a Residence Inn was laid off because technology improvements absorbed many of her duties, and other responsibilities could be absorbed by other workers.
The 62-year-old employee applied for a vacant position with the hotel, but the job was given to a 33-year-old woman instead.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that it was reasonable to believe age played a factor in the hiring decision, which gave the worker the right to sue.
But a U.S. District Court judge dismissed her subsequent ADEA suit, ruling that the employee couldn’t show that the employer’s stated reason for hiring the younger worker — that she was more qualified for the position because she had held a similar role at other properties and had more experience with the position’s responsibilities — was false.
Citing a non-age-related reason to favor a younger employee doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re in the clear, however.
If a court decides that the so-called legitimate reason is a pretext to cover up age-motivated discrimination, you and your company could still end up in hot water.