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Ageism and the Public Workplace: Challenges for Today’s Public HR Professional

By Joseph G. Jarret and Autriel E. Galloway

The age of the Baby Boomer (most commonly defined by the Census Bureau as those born during the demographic Post–World War II baby boom between 1946 and 1964) was a phenomenon that induced the United States Congress to pass the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967. In 2013, the youngest Baby Boomers turn 49 years old. Considering the size of this age group within the American workforce, it is the largest age cohort protected by the ADEA.

jarret 2According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the ADEA protects individuals over the age of 40 from discriminatory work situations, instances of harassment, and the implementation of certain workplace policies and procedures that may lead to discrimination. It prohibits age-related bias in all aspects of employment, “including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits and any other term or condition of employment.” Comments about someone’s age qualify as harassment when they become so frequent and harsh as to create a “hostile or offensive work environment” or eventuate in “an adverse employment decision.” Anyone associated with the organization – the “victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer” – can qualify as the harasser according to the EEOC. One should also understand that employment policies and practices that apply to everyone, in spite of age, can be considered illegal if they have a “negative impact on applicants or employees age 40 or older” and are “not based on a reasonable factor other than age.”

In a 2012 report issued by the National Federal of Independent Business (NFIB) titled “Age Bias and the Baby Boomers: An Expanding Problem,” the NFIB found that as Baby Boomers continue to age, they face age discrimination in two major areas: layoffs and hiring. Many organizations, including those in the public sector, are looking for opportunities to minimize costs. Some have begun laying off senior employees, the ones who often cost the most because of earned salary perks, pensions, healthcare costs and other hard-earned benefits. As for hiring, individuals over the age of 40 searching for work find it hard like most others in the job market. However, the difficulty arises because potential employees over the age of 40 have serious work experience for which they seek compensation. Instead of paying for someone’s experience, organizations often choose to hire the less-experienced individual who is oftentimes seeking less money. Most individuals who seek compensation find it easier to prove the presence of age discrimination during the termination process as opposed to the hiring process. The NFIB report also noted, “In a number of cases, it has been ruled that this ‘salary discrimination’ is de facto age discrimination because there’s almost always a direct correlation between age [and] salary level.”

jarret 1To curb age discrimination, organizations and the Baby Boomer generation must both consider opportunities for compromise. For employees that are still active in a work environment, phased retirement is becoming a viable option. A 2009 Deloitte Consulting Company report titled “Balancing Talent Strategies in Difficult Times” observed that phased retirement helps organizations reduce costs and bypass the possibility of a “long-term talent shortage.” In the public sector, enacting phased retirement plans takes a little more work because “changes to employee retirement programs and policies often are likely to require direct legislative approval.” Another obstacle may be getting employees to feel secure in such a program. For individuals at least 40 years of age who are looking to rejoin the workforce, a change in attitude and perspective is necessary. Joan Cirillo, president and CEO of Operation A.B.L.E. in Boston, says that it is important for older workers “to realize they are not going to get into their former jobs” and to accept help finding a position that they feel is a good fit.

Incidents of age discrimination are undoubtedly on the rise. Although some are blatant and intentional, like age-related harassment, most incidents are not. Recognizing the availability of options and finding ways to compromise can produce a win-win situation for organizations and employees. As referenced in the NFIB report, “changes in attitudes can curb age discrimination if both organizations and workers are willing to adjust.” Public HR professionals must take the time to insure that their entity’s managers, supervisors and employees are aware of the ADEA and the penalties for failing to comply.


Joseph G. Jarret is a public sector manager, attorney and mediator who lectures on behalf of the Master of Public Policy and Administration program in the Department of Political Science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is the 2013 president of the East Tennessee Chapter of ASPA. 

Autriel E. Galloway is graduate of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Masters in Public Policy and Administration Degree program.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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