Age Discrimination & You

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How Supreme Court Decisions Trickle Down to Your Business and How to Be Prepared

This past October, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that age discrimination in employment applies to both private businesses as well as state and federal government entities. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 specifically refers to businesses of 20 employees or more, and it was argued that the language of the law was vague enough that state and government entities were excluded from this requirement.

The case that was presented, Mount Lemmon Fire District v. Guido et al., originated in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit that had already ruled on it, but it was then appealed to the Supreme Court. It involved a fire district that had dismissed two of its employees, John Guido, 46, and Dennis Rankin, 54. The men sued alleging age discrimination, however, the fire district argued that it was too small of an entity to be subject to the 1967 law. Had the court agreed, then state and federal agencies could argue that they could be exempted from the law either because of size or because they were not strictly businesses.

As state and federal agencies represent the largest employers in the country, this would have extensive ramifications for smaller entities and divisions. It could also have the side-effect of incentivizing these to keep employee numbers low and/or to create smaller subdivisions to further bypass the law. Regardless, the court upheld the lower-court ruling that stated the language also applies to state and federal entities, thus reaffirming that age discrimination remains a violation of the law for all employers.

So what does this mean for employers? Simply put, the court’s re-affirmation ensures that all entities remain compliant with the law. Whether you work for a private business, the state or the federal government, age discrimination will continue to be an important factor in your day-to-day operations. Every employer needs to ensure that they remain within the law when hiring, training, promoting and firing employees.

I have a personal anecdote to add to this situation. When I was negotiating my departure from a state employer last year, management repeatedly referred to my age. In one meeting I was told by a senior manager: “You are going to be turning 50 soon, right? You should probably think about retiring.” I was not interested in a long drawn-out battle so I did not pursue this further, but I bring this up to point out that even well-educated high-level managers and directors can make mistakes that could result in significant legal exposure.

Age discrimination is extremely common, often subtle, and typically disguised as something more benign with language like needing to bring in more “agile” and “dynamic” talent. The fact is that businesses, as well as state and federal agencies, typically seek to replace older, higher-paid talent with lower-cost labor to reduce expenses. And while academic environments have a reputation for being more equitable and fairer to employees, age discrimination also occurs there. As a matter of fact, my experience was actually with an institution of higher learning. Age discrimination is typically dismissed as good business, but it is ultimately illegal.

In early December, the Colégas Group is offering a two-day seminar regarding age in the workplace. In addition to covering age discrimination, the comprehensive curriculum covers issues at every age, from finding creative ways to incorporate young people into a team to capitalizing on the wealth of knowledge and experience that older employees bring to the team. Our view is that age diversity is a competitive asset that can mean real advantages for the bottom line. As a matter of fact, the motto for the seminars is “Capitalizing on Diversity.” Seminar registration is now open, so if this is something that you or your employees need, here is the link: www.CollegiateSeminars.com.

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This article is guest post by Michael Koetsier. It is part of a newsletter published weekly called The Gigster 'Zine. It is a production of the Colégas Group, an organization that seeks to offer new opportunities for anyone with a college degree. To learn more about us, to receive valuable strategies for improvement, and to find innovative employment opportunities, sign up for the complete newsletter at
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