Here’s some advice for HR managers: Don’t panic if you find out that a supervisor has made age-related comments. Instead, use the incident as a teaching moment.
Take the time to highlight ageism as a problem and instruct all managers and supervisors that they should view negative comments about age the same way they view comments based on sex, race, disability and other protected classification stereotyping—as inappropriate talk in the workplace.
Then rest assured that you may have prevented a brewing age-based hostile work environment lawsuit.
Recent case: Richard Cook was 52 years old in 1999 when Shell hired him to load trucks in the shipping department. Over the next decade, he injured himself several times. The last incident occurred when he hurt his shoulder while operating lifting machinery.
Cook reported the injury to his supervisor, who allegedly told Cook, “People your age have a tendency of being injured more often than others and I don’t know what to do.” He told Cook to go back to his work area.
Later, when the pain continued, Cook told the supervisor he really needed to see a doctor. The supervisor allegedly made more comments about age and injuries. Cook finally saw a doctor later that day.
He has been on some form of leave since, receiving workers’ compensation and long-term disability benefits following rotator cuff surgery.
Cook sued, claiming he had been forced to work in an ageist, hostile environment.
But the court tossed out his suit, reasoning that two isolated comments on the same day following an injury were not severe enough to justify a hostile work environment lawsuit. (Cook v. Equilon Enterprises (Shell), No. 4:09-CV-0756, SD TX, 2010)