How to Deal With Age Discrimination at Work

It’s illegal for companies to discriminate against older workers.

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I recently received a letter from a reader about a growing problem. She’s been working for the same company for over 30 years. Now in her early 70s, she’s still able to do her job but feels that her employer is treating her unfairly and hoping she’ll quit. She's thinking about hiring an attorney, but can't afford it and doesn't want to take on debt in order to pursue this case. Can a worker do anything about this perceived age discrimination in her workplace?

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Companies that employ more than 20 people are subject to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which prohibits companies from discriminating against employees age 40 and over. If you can prove that an employer treated you differently than a younger person with regard to hiring, layoffs, pay, or benefits you may be able to sue.

However, companies can discriminate or even force you to retire early if they can prove that it’s reasonable to do so. For example, let's say you work for a moving company. The company could administer health tests and endurance examinations to make sure you are able to keep up with business requirements.

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If you think you were treated unfairly because of your age, you will generally need to prove it. What seems like discrimination to you may seem like a reasonable business practice to your employer. And your employer will try to defend against age discrimination suits because small business liability insurance usually doesn't cover this type of issue. Any award you get comes straight out of your employer's pockets.

If you find yourself in a situation where you're being discriminated against, build your case, but be careful about it. Take care to document unfair practices. And once you have sufficient evidence, you should seek expert legal advice. I suggest you buy an hour of an attorney’s time and tell her you want to talk to your employer, not sue for the time being. Ask the attorney to coach you on how to handle that meeting. If you want to hold on to your job, your best shot of doing that is to keep things nice.

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You may also want to go to your employer to try to work something out. Find out if there is anything you can do to improve the situation. Be prepared with a few suggestions on things you could do to help the company be more profitable and document it. Don’t go into the meetings with a belligerent attitude even though you may have a right to be angry. Tell your employer what you believe to be the problem and that you would like to do anything possible to be of service. It’s best to try to let your employer know that you’ve noticed something amiss and try to repair the relationship, rather than make any threats. And keep records of the conversation. If the situation deteriorates and you lose your job, you can always play hardball at that time.

Neal Frankle is a certified financial planner and runs Wealth Pilgrim, a personal finance blog that helps people make smart decisions about their money. As a start, he suggests that you strive to understand your credit score range.