5 ways to handle age-related discrimination in the workplace

Jun 13, 2021
Being excluded from participating in particular projects is one example of ageism in the workplace. Source: Getty

Whether you are a seasoned workplace veteran in your 60s or a young professional in your early 20s, ageism has probably affected you at some point in your career.

But what is ageism, and why don’t we hear about it as much as we hear about sexism and racism? The recently released World Health Organisation (WHO) Global Report on Ageism explains that ageism “arises when age is used to categorise and divide people in ways that lead to harm, disadvantage and injustice.” It explains that ageism “refers to the stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) directed towards people on the basis of their age. It can be institutional, interpersonal or self-directed.”

Shockingly, the WHO report found that one in two people held ageist views. Ageism is perhaps best understood to be directed at people who are 50+ years old and young people. In Australia, a current, former or prospective employee who experiences a negative outcome as a result of age-based decisions, actions or words may be the victim of workplace discrimination, bullying or harassment.

What is ageism in the workplace?

In a workplace setting, the effects of ageism can be detrimental to a business’ productivity and subsequently also affect its profitability. Some of the most common examples of ageism in the workplace occur when being ‘too old’ or ‘too young’ is a factor in the following:

  • Not being hired for a role.
  • Not being considered for internal promotions and career advancement opportunities.
  • Being excluded from participating in particular projects.
  • Being excluded from workplace social functions and events.
  • Not being considered for, or being denied access to, professional development opportunities.
  • Being denied leave due to your family circumstances, such as not being able to have the Christmas break off due to having older children, or being forced to have the break off because you do have younger children.
  • Being subjected to negative or jokey remarks related to age by colleagues and supervisors.

There are a number of pieces of federal, state and territory legislation that include provisions that make such behaviours unlawful, including provisions of the Fair Work Act 2009. Workplace discrimination, bullying and harassment can lead to serious implications for perpetrators and also for workplaces that don’t manage these issues effectively.

Challenges in combating ageism-related workplace bullying issues:

Unlike racism or sexual harassment in the workplace, which are being more frequently highlighted and discussed throughout the media these days, ageism doesn’t get the same attention. It’s often mistaken as not being as serious or worthy as racism or sexism. Employees are less likely to raise examples of the ageism they’re experiencing in the workplace because it seems unimportant to others and this makes combating the issue more difficult.

Ageist behaviour during the recruitment process is particularly difficult to address, because applicants are actively seeking employment and want to promote themselves in the best light. They don’t want to be seen to be complaining from the get-go.

Effective ways to respond:

Dealing with ageism can be uncomfortable at best and frightening at worst. Depending on your comfort levels and skill base, there are several ways in which you can respond to incidents of workplace ageism in including:

  1. Have a chat: There are some people who habitually make decisions and behavioural choices that are influenced by age-related observations without realising they are doing so. If the person who has been ageist towards you is someone that normally treats people with respect, it might be worth having a low-key discussion with them. It’s very possible that they are open to constructive feedback and willing to review their habitual behaviour.
  2. Have a difficult conversation: If you have reasonably well-developed conflict-resolution skills and you’re confident about your personal power within your organisation, consider having a one-on-one conversation with the person who has treated you in an ageist manner. Prior to putting this in motion, it’s important to consider how you can maintain your own safety (mental, emotional and physical) regardless of the outcome from the discussion. Conversations like this can be challenging, but the more you do it, the better you will become at having them. Working through a difficult issue and coming to an agreed understanding or outcome at the end can forge worthwhile, long-term connections between the two participants.
  3. Get support: If you really don’t feel up to having a one-on-one discussion but you still want to address the issue using informal processes, seek out a colleague or manager who may be able to coach you and help facilitate a discussion between you and the other person. Watching how someone facilitates such a discussion can end up being a bonus learning experience.
  4. Lodge a grievance/complaint: If informal resolution processes aren’t available to you or don’t work, lodging a grievance or complaint is the next best option. Most effective grievance/complaint processes are designed to achieve three outcomes: repair relationships, address systemic organisational flaws (e.g. a policy or procedure that is badly designed) or fix something that’s incorrect (e.g. review and address an incorrectly applied HR policy or process).
  5. If all else fails: This might be the time to seriously consider what your best options might be. You can go to a trusted mentor, your union or a solicitor for advice. You can decide not to take any further action. You can also decide to look around for a job in an organisation that treats its employees with respect and understands the positive outcomes that flow when workforce diversity is encouraged and supported.

For those of you not directly experiencing ageism in your workplace, but have seen it happening to others, find a way to help stop those behaviours. If you feel safe and skilled enough, it might be worthwhile stepping in to stop or help resolve a specific incident. Even if you don’t feel stepping in is something you can do, why not consider what actions you can take in more general settings, to encourage and promote a positive, respectful workplace culture that welcomes diversity in its workforce.

To read more about ageism in and outside the workplace, head here.

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