Age discrimination examples in the workplace to avoid

Discrimination and harassment plague workplaces in many forms. One common and harmful form targets individuals based on their age, known as ageism. There are age discrimination laws in place to protect workers from unfair treatment based on age, but recognizing the signs of age discrimination and navigating claims can be challenging for employees and business owners.

To help, we’ve compiled a list of the types of age discrimination to look out for in the workplace and some common age discrimination examples. Find out how your business can make equitable employment decisions for workers of all ages and avoid age discrimination claims.

What Is Age Discrimination?

Age discrimination, as defined by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), is a form of employment discrimination that occurs when employees or applicants are treated less favorably based on age. The term typically refers to discrimination, specifically against older workers. This is because the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the primary federal law governing age discrimination in the United States, only protects workers 40 or older.

Types of Age Discrimination

There are two main types of age discrimination, along with other forms of age-related harassment.

Direct Age Discrimination

Direct age discrimination occurs when employers treat an individual less favorably because of their age. This discrimination can manifest in various ways. Employers may pass over older workers for promotions or new roles, offer them lower pay or reduced benefits, or change their job responsibilities unfairly. Additionally, older workers may experience unfavorable treatment from their peers or managers due to their age.

Indirect Age Discrimination

Indirect age discrimination occurs when a company’s policies or practices adversely impact workers in certain age groups, particularly older employees. These policies generally apply to all employees but predominantly negatively impact older workers.

For example, companies may offer training programs targeted solely at recent college graduates. This practice can lead to age discrimination cases if it excludes older employees from valuable training and development opportunities. Similarly, companies may implement policies with mandatory retirement ages or strict physical fitness requirements.

These policies can also result in age discrimination claims unless the company can prove they are necessary for a specific job function, known as a bona fide occupational qualification. Therefore, companies must carefully consider the potential impact of their policies on older workers to avoid discriminatory practices.

Age Harassment

Age harassment occurs when someone is subject to offensive or unwelcome comments, gestures, or communications related to their age. This harassment can take the form of sexual harassment, hostile work environment harassment, or general workplace bullying. Examples of age harassment include derogatory comments about a specific individual’s age or generalizations about older workers, unwelcome jokes regarding someone’s age, sexual harassment with terms sexualizing older workers (MILF, cougar, etc), or unwelcome advances.


As with any form of harassment or discrimination, retaliation based on complaints is also a concern. Suppose an older employee reports that they are experiencing potential discrimination or harassment. In that case, managers may retaliate against them for complaining with heightened harassment or continued poor treatment.

Common Examples of Age Discrimination

The below examples highlight standard discriminatory practices that may lead older workers to become victims of age discrimination at work.

Being Discriminated Against in the Hiring Process

Age bias often hinders older applicants during recruitment. This form of workplace discrimination is particularly challenging to identify, as rejected applicants rarely learn the reason behind their rejection. Older applicants usually experience discrimination throughout various stages of the hiring process.

For instance, older workers who include graduation dates on their resume may experience age discrimination within the initial resume screening round and not receive a chance to interview due to age bias. They may also face discrimination after the interview stage when age is more apparent.

Sometimes, job descriptions have evidence of age bias and can discourage older applicants from applying. Employers should ensure they aren’t using terms that may signify that they’re looking for a young employee and only include the physical requirements necessary for the role.

Being Overlooked For Training and Promotional Opportunities

Businesses and team leaders often overlook older employees for training opportunities or promotions, particularly as they approach the average retirement age. This form of age discrimination occurs for a couple of reasons.

One underlying cause is the stereotype that older employees are stuck in their ways or resistant to learning new ways of doing things. Managers may assume that older workers will not want to learn new tools or struggle with new technology or processes and, thus, will not want to partake in new training opportunities. However, this stereotype about older people does not represent how all older employees feel.

Similarly, there’s often an outdated and biased view that developing and promoting older workers offers a lower return on investment for the company. Many people tend to view younger workers as eager to learn and grow as future leaders. In contrast, many perceive older workers as simply “waiting out retirement.”

This perception leads to a focus on developing and promoting younger employees. Companies often invest more in younger workers, assuming they’ll stay longer. However, this assumption is often false, as younger workers frequently change jobs. Simultaneously, companies overlook older employees for promotions, believing their time with the company is limited.

Implicit or unconscious bias may drive these assumptions and perceptions. This type of bias operates unintentionally, so discriminatory actions may not be deliberate. To counteract this, regularly review data on internal promotions and training enrollments. This review can reveal whether older employees are being excluded and need further support. Training managers to be aware of this potential bias and combat it within the workplace is also helpful.

Receiving Age-Related Jokes or Comments At Work

Age-related remarks are one of the most common examples of age discrimination. This can range from quick quips like calling someone an “old man” or “boomer” to more overt derogatory comments about someone’s age. These age-related remarks often stem from assumptions about older people’s abilities. People may assume older individuals struggle to perform work tasks or grasp new concepts and technology.

On the surface, many of these comments seem innocuous. Still, they can be harmful to employees and the overall work environment. It’s vital that team members feel respected and are not being singled out or targeted due to their age.

Being Targeted In Layoffs or Workforce Reductions

Employers have some discretion in determining which positions to eliminate during downsizing. The law prohibits them from considering age when creating layoff lists. However, some employers still discriminate against older workers when eliminating roles or positions.

Being laid off or having your role eliminated due to your age is a form of age discrimination. However, employers may offer early retirement to older workers in some circumstances. This is typically a voluntary program and requires a waiver of age discrimination claims and compensation such as a generous severance package. These issues can be legally tricky, so be sure to work with a qualified employment law attorney or law firm and ensure that you are not forcing or pressuring employees to accept an early retirement.

Receiving Lower Quality Benefits Packages

Providing healthcare insurance and other benefits to older employees can often be more costly to employers, as insurance premiums for older people will typically be higher than for younger employees. However, employers can offer older employees different benefits packages or cost-sharing options.

The Older Workers Benefit Protection Act of 1990 prohibits discrimination against older workers in employee benefits. However, the law allows exceptions when significant cost considerations justify age-based reductions in employee benefit plans.

Employers generally allow employees to specify a certain percentage of the premium they will pay. Employees can also set a maximum amount they will contribute towards premiums for each employee. Therefore, the actual monthly cost to the employee can vary based on factors such as their age and their plan selections. Still, the plan offerings and benefits policies should generally be the same across the board for all eligible employees (except for location-based differences in plan options and coverage requirements).

Exclusionary Workplace Cultures

Older and younger workers should feel included in workplace communications and activities. Suppose an older worker has noted that a particular communication approach is challenging. In that case, managers should work to deliver communications in a manner that includes them.

For example, young employees and team leaders should be cognizant of how they use slang, GIFs, or memes in workplace chats and explain if older workers need help understanding their context. Plan team-building activities that cater to everyone’s needs. Older workers and employees with disabilities may not find traditional activities like ropes courses inclusive.

Changing Workloads or Work Assignments Due to Age

Employers are not permitted to base work assignments on an employee’s age. Adjusting workloads for older employees can be a tricky form of age discrimination. While some managers make these changes with good intentions, the underlying assumptions can still be discriminatory.

The EEOC uses an example of a manager changing a customer service employee’s work assignments to have them support older customers. On the surface, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The employee is still fulfilling their support role, and, understandably, older employees may relate to older customers better and thus provide them with a better customer experience. However, the EEOC maintains that this is still age discrimination as the manager adjusts the employees’ job assignments based on age.

Similarly, managers may want to be helpful by adjusting older employees’ workloads to be easier or less physically demanding. While managers may intend to help by lightening an older employee’s workload, this decision often stems from age bias. Managers should avoid making assumptions about older workers’ abilities. Don’t assume they work slower, struggle with stress, or can’t handle the physical demands of their role.

Instead of pre-emptively making adjustments based on your assumptions about older workers’ needs, let individual workers come to you and express their personal needs if necessary. People age at different rates and in different ways. Don’t assume only older individuals experience issues like joint pain or vision loss. Hence, it’s best to accommodate each individual as needed in alignment with the Americans With Disabilities Act rather than adjusting work assignments based on age.