Definition of Ageism


Ageism in the workplace is willful or unintentional discrimination against a job seeker or employee based on their age. Age discrimination is prohibited for workers aged 40 or more under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). This federal law only protects workers aged 40 or older.

What is ageism?

In addition to the federal regulation, some states have supplementary age discrimination laws that prohibit ‘reverse’ discrimination that targets younger workers.

Workers’ rights don’t lessen as they age. Ageism occurs when any benefit or term of employment, from the application process throughout tenure, is determined based on age.

This includes every aspect of employment, including:

  • Wages
  • Benefits
  • Promotions
  • Transfers
  • Disciplinary action
  • Separation

Ageism can occur when management negatively impacts employees based on their age. It can also happen when peers harass, victimize, or exclude colleagues because of their age.

Why is understanding and prohibiting ageism important for your business?

Ageism creates negative outcomes for businesses. Engagement will suffer when employees are treated differently than their peers based on their age. Staff members who are the victims of ageist practices may be less productive. The result is that their performance can be impacted and will affect those around them.

Considering age when making a hiring decision may exclude talented workers with a wealth of experience and strong qualifications to bring to an organization. When ageism occurs during a worker’s employment cycle, you may see lost productivity and lower morale. There’s also a risk of turnover.

A discrimination-free workplace bases employment decisions on the work that must be completed. A staff member’s individual characteristics, including age, should not be a factor.

History of age discrimination laws

In 1965 Congress asked the US Secretary of Labor to develop a study on age discrimination in the workplace. The resulting Older American Worker, Age Discrimination in Employment, known as the Wirtz Report, revealed half of employers denied jobs to workers aged 45 or older. The study found that American businesses routinely discriminated against workers from their 40s to 60s. Some employers even refused to hire any worker over the age of 25.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) became law in 1967. It prohibits discrimination in employment for workers over age 40. The law was created to protect workers and try to dispel misconceptions that more seasoned workers contributed less than their younger counterparts. The Act protects employees who still have decades of work before Social Security retirement eligibility.

The study found that American businesses routinely discriminated against workers from their 40s to 60s. The ADEA protects employees who still have decades of work before Social Security retirement eligibility.

Many states and the District of Columbia have additional laws that protect workers from reverse age discrimination. These mandates prohibit making any hiring or employment decisions based on any age. These laws tend to protect younger workers from receiving lower wages than similarly situated colleagues who perform the same work.

It’s a best practice to verify any age discrimination laws where you do business with your local Department of Labor.

Types of age discrimination

There are many forms of age discrimination in the workplace, which can be intentional or inadvertent. Ageism is not only management-driven. Coworkers who harass or exclude their peers based on age may also be participating in age discrimination.

Types of ageism include:

Direct discrimination

When company policies or practices intentionally exclude a worker based on age, this is direct discrimination. This occurs when decisions are consciously made that factor the employee or applicant’s age into the determination.

When reviewing applications, eliminating a candidate because of lengthy work history is prohibited. If recruiters or managers determine the worker is older, based on the number of years in the workforce, and, as a result, choose not to interview, there may be discrimination involved.

Basing any employment decision on the candidate’s or employee’s age is prohibited under the law. This applies to:

  • Wages
  • Benefits
  • Transfers
  • Favorable assignments or shifts
  • Promotions
  • Disciplinary actions, etc.

When making these determinations, it’s necessary to only factor in the work being performed, not the worker’s age.

Forced early or mandatory retirement

Discrimination occurs if workers are made to retire based solely on their age. Therefore, forced retirement may be another form of age discrimination. Retirement may be appropriate if there are other factors, like performance or safety.

Ageism may also come from coworkers. When staff members specifically exclude others based on their age, discrimination occurs. This can include requesting colleagues join their team, work with them on projects, or even socialize with group members during or after work. If the decision to include or exclude is based on age, it’s prohibited.

Indirect discrimination in hiring

Indirect discrimination can occur even when a company has no intent. Hiring or employment practices that tend to exclude candidates or workers, even inadvertently, can be discriminatory.

This can begin during the recruitment process. Job postings that suggest younger workers are preferred may be discriminatory.

Unwanted jokes about an individual (or older people in general) can be another form of harassment. Even without intent, the behavior may be discriminatory.

Remove language that infers youth, such as ‘dynamic’ or ‘energetic.’ ‘digital native’ suggests a worker who has no experience in a world without technology: this may inadvertently exclude more seasoned applicants.

Indirect discrimination in training

If younger workers are offered more opportunities for training, it may be indirect discrimination. Assuming more seasoned staff members are not interested in developing their skill set can be discriminatory. If an organization believes older workers aren’t interested in projects or assignments that require travel or overtime, that may also be discriminatory.

The impression that older workers are less tech-savvy can be another form of indirect discrimination. Assigning technology jobs or responsibility for social media postings to younger workers may seem common sense, but it may be ageism.

Indirect discrimination in policy language

Dress code policies should apply to all workers, with language that reflects professionalism rather than age-appropriateness, as the latter may be considered discriminatory. More seasoned employees may feel they’re being excluded if language suggests more conservative clothing for older workers.

Indirect discrimination in scheduling or layoffs

Work assignments based on age are prohibited. Leadership may schedule younger workers to more favorable shifts, like evenings, when tips are more plentiful. They may assume an older worker isn’t able to keep pace or won’t want to work late into the night.

When downsizing or layoffs occur, many companies look to reduce staff at the highest wage levels, typically equating to more seasoned employees. If ultimately replaced by younger, less expensive workers, these cost-cutting measures may be considered age discrimination.

Colleagues may make assumptions about their peers that reflect age discrimination. They may believe their older coworker doesn’t understand technology and take pains to explain in detail. Other forms can be less direct: while not openly excluding more seasoned employees, making no effort to include them may be considered ageist.


Harassing an employee because of their age is also prohibited. This form of harassment can be from management or peers. It includes verbal or physical harassment such as:

  • Derogatory nicknames (old man/woman)
  • Bullying
  • Threats
  • Intrusive questions
  • Insults
  • Exclusion

Unwanted jokes about an individual (or older people in general) can be another form of harassment. Even without intent, the behavior may be discriminatory.

Images, cartoons, or other content portraying older workers as inept or negative are inappropriate. Comments or challenges about the workers’ physical or mental acuity may also be discriminatory.

Retaliation is prohibited

As with all discrimination claims, retaliation against an employee who brings forth a charge is prohibited under the ADEA. Employers must assume any claim of age discrimination is brought forth in good faith and investigate immediately.

The employee may not be subjected to any retaliation based on their claim — either from management or peers.

Other terms similar to ageism you must know

  • Vietnam Era Veteran’s Readjustment Act: A law that ensures federal contractors and subcontractors do not discriminate against protected veterans in employment practices and requires employers to take intentional action to recruit, hire, retain, and promote these veterans.
  • Workers’ comp class codes: Class codes are a compilation of job definitions designed to accurately identify various workplace exposures.


Age discrimination weakens organizations and puts businesses at risk of complaints and potential lawsuits. When seasoned, experienced workers are excluded or harassed, the organization suffers. Growth-oriented companies know the value of a well-rounded, multi-generational team that includes seasoned, experienced staff.

Prohibiting ageism in all its forms is a best practice for businesses. Even workers not directly targeted by age discrimination are affected. Younger employees may wonder whether they’ll be welcome at the organization in the future. As a result, they may look elsewhere for their long-term career plan.

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