A former engineer, who sued his employer for age discrimination after being laid off at age 66, was awarded $51.6 million by a jury in a federal court in New Jersey. This may be the highest amount ever awarded to an individual in an age discrimination case, and stands as a stark reminder that age discrimination remains a big — and potentially very expensive — issue for HR.
A mid-level manager who spent almost 30 years at his employer, claims that he was a target in a reduction in force plan to replace older workers with younger ones, and that he and other older workers consistently received less pay and lower reviews and raises than younger workers. He also said that supervisors and company executives regularly made off-hand remarks about older workers.
The $51.6 award breaks down like this: $50 million for punitive damages under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, $520,000 for economic loss, $520,000 for willful action against the Age Discrimination and Employment Act (ADEA) and another $520,000 for pain and suffering.
Discrimination against older workers remains a significant problem
While the size of the award is certainly surprising, workplace age discrimination, unfortunately, is not. A 2013 AARP study found that almost two in three workers ages 45 to 74 said they have experienced workplace age discrimination.
And with an aging US population and ongoing economic uncertainty, more people plan to or must stay in the workforce well past the age of 65. As a result, managers and supervisors should take steps to ensure all employees are vigilant and sensitive to behavior and practices that can be grounds for an age discrimination claim.
Here are 8 tips to help your organization prevent age discrimination:
• Implement and enforce a written anti-discrimination and harassment policy that specifically addresses age discrimination.
• Don’t indicate age preferences or use words and phrases such as “young, energetic company” and “recent college graduates” in job postings, advertisements and personnel materials.
• Avoid asking applicants their age or other questions that don’t relate to job qualifications or responsibilities such as, “What year did you graduate high school?” or “What are your retirement plans?”
• Be aware of and avoid age-related comments that stereotype older workers such as, “he’s long in the tooth,” “old school,” “dinosaur” and “she is set in her ways.”
• Regularly review and update your employment practices to identify any age bias or negative stereotypes.
• Conduct regular anti-discrimination and harassment training for all employees, managers, supervisors and new hires.
• Reinforce to managers and supervisors that your organization does not tolerate discrimination against older workers in terms of training, job assignments, promotions, benefits and performance reviews.
• Stay up to date on local, state and federal age discrimination laws. Most states have their own laws, which may provide more protection to workers than the ADEA. For example, the ADEA, which protects workers age 40 or older, applies to employers with 20 or more employees, while in California, employers with at least five workers must adhere to the state’s Fair Housing and Employment Act.
Stay tuned: In February, members of the US Senate Special Committee on Aging introduced the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act, which aims to alleviate the burden on older workers to prove that discrimination was not just a motivating factor but the sole or overriding factor in an adverse employment decision.