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How to Know if You’re Experiencing Age Discrimination

Dear Joseph,

I am 63½ and considering retirement next year. The key word here is “considering.” I have not finalized my decision. Recently my supervisor asked if I was over 60 and if I was going to retire. It caught me off guard. I mentioned that I was concerned that talking about retirement would label me as a “short-timer” and limit my ability to further my training and projects. I told her I had seen this happen to others in the company. I assured her I was not planning to retire this year and the discussion was dropped.

What do I say if this comes up in conversation again? What should I do if it appears that I am beginning to be sidelined?

Not Ready for Pasture

Dear Not Ready,

For the sake of my response, I’m going to assume you have a cordial but not deep relationship with your supervisor. The way you characterize the uncertainty of your exchange with her leads me to believe you have some concerns about how transparent she will be with you in the future.

If that’s the case, I have a few suggestions for you:

Secure Your Legal Position

Don’t do anything inflammatory. You don’t need to raise alarms. But you do need to plant a stake. First, document this conversation. Send her an email referencing her question and your response. I am not an HR expert, but I believe it is perfectly appropriate for your employer to ask if you have retirement plans. They have a right to gather information to plan for their legitimate staffing needs. However, they have no right to pressure you to retire. They also have no right to discriminate against you because you are of an age where retirement is an option. Putting the text of the conversation in writing will allow you to reference it credibly later if real problems occur.

Follow Up

If you resolve that retirement is not in the foreseeable future, let her know that. Even though the organization has no right to discriminate based on age and related future plans, it’s in your interest to get favorable information in the heads of those who make decisions about you that could be subtly influenced by incorrect assumptions.

Observe Impartially

Given your fears, you might have a tendency to look for evidence of discrimination that doesn’t exist. For example, the fact that you are not given the lead in a single new project is not compelling evidence that they are sidelining you. Be careful not to search for injustices or build resentments because it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, the very fact that you’re looking for discriminatory behavior might cause you to behave in ways that make you a less attractive choice for key projects. However, watch for clear patterns. A good way to be sure you are seeing a clear pattern rather than a confirmation of your bias is to engage a fair-minded friend in examining new events with you. If concerning signs emerge, document them.

Address Concerns Immediately

The email you sent to your supervisor serves to put her on notice that you will be paying attention. You’ve bookmarked the issue and expressed your expectation that you be treated fairly. If you accumulate reasonable evidence of a pattern of discrimination, make an appointment with her immediately. Don’t let this be a hallway conversation like the first round. Sit down, share the pattern. Ask for explanations to help you understand. And follow up with an email documenting your conversation.

I know this may sound legalistic. And it is. Given that you believe you have seen discriminatory activity in the past and that you don’t have a high-trust relationship with your supervisor, you should (1) assume the best; (2) ask for objective help challenging unfair suspicions; and (3) document concerns so you can secure your rights.

I wish you all the best in the days, weeks, months or years left in your career!


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

2 thoughts on “How to Know if You’re Experiencing Age Discrimination”

  1. Darrell

    Excellent advice, Joseph, on both the legal and interpersonal fronts.

    One thing I’d add to your recommendation about emails to the boss is to bcc them to a personal email address. This way, the employee has access to them for sure. If the emails are only stored in a work “sent” folder and the employee is terminated, it’s likely the company will pull his/her access to that email account before s/he can recover the emails. Another option is to print out the emails after they’re sent.

  2. Mark Kennedy

    Excellent advice, especially the advice to not overreact. It seems odd to me that the supervisor would need to ask the employee’s age as they would have access to the personnel file. It’s also odd that the supervisor didn’t handle this sensitive topic more appropriately. These factors make me curious about trust also. That said, you point out that the employer may be asking the question in connection with staffing plans. If the employee can safely ask, “I’m curious why you were asking about retirement” and the supervisor confirmed it was for planning, then the employee might want to consider asking the employer, “When I do make the decision to retire, how much advance notice would be helpful for you?” As a retiree, I knew well in advance of the minimally required notice that I would be retiring and worked proactively with my employer to create a smooth transition.

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