Is this age discrimination?


(MoneyWatch) Dear Evil HR Lady,

I work part time and I'm 62. I suspect both bother my manager. On a few occasions he's made ageist remarks such as saying to colleagues thinking I'm out of earshot 'looks like Steve forgot his Grecian Formula this morning' and during a recent (one on one) professional development meeting 'when are you going to retire?' And 'are you looking for other jobs?'

Should I complain to HR? Or to his boss? To him? Or let it ride?

There are two issues here: Age and part time work.

If part time isn't common in your field and your company, it's understandable that your manager dislikes having a part time person on board. Asking you if you are looking for other jobs is a completely reasonable question for someone who is only putting in 20 hours a week. (Assuming part time means 50 percent, it could mean 80 percent, but you didn't specify.) If he inherited you, I can see why he'd want you to go. (And many companies do not allow managers to unilaterally terminated someone, which could be why he can't just say, "I don't want any part timers.")

Now, let's talk about age. It's illegal to discriminate against someone because of their age, but it's not illegal to make a joke here and there or to ask someone if they are planning to retire. But, it is all immediately suspect because there is no more need to know if someone is planning to retire in the next few years than there is to know if someone is planning to quit three years from Tuesday. It's a ridiculous thing to talk about, given the general churn of the workforce.

Now, how should you respond? I'm tempted (because I'm a smart alec) to respond to jokes about your lack of Grecian Formula, "You're right, Dave, I better pick some up when I go to pick up your sippy cups and diapers." But, that is not actually a recommendation, just a temptation.

There's a good chance, of course, that it is just joking. Ill advised, of course, but not meant to be harmful or discriminatory. Does your boss make jokes about your coworkers as well? "Well, we can all see Karen went shoe shopping again!" The real test of discriminatory behavior is how you are treated otherwise. Normally I'd say, "are your projects equal to others? Do you notice being excluded from meetings? Are you repeatedly passed over for promotions?" but the part time thing complicates that whole thing.

What you should really do is, in a one on one situation with your boss, say, "Dave, I've noticed that you joke about my age quite a bit. I don't appreciate it, and do not find it funny. Age discrimination is actually illegal and, as such, shouldn't be joked about."

Now, some people would tell you to file an official complaint at this point, but I tend to lean towards assuming the best of people. Without evidence to the contrary, I tend to assume that people are generally good and don't realize the impact of their statements. Your boss may be shocked to find out that you find his statements offensive.

At the end of the conversation you state, "I am going to send you a follow up email to document our conversation." And then do that. Write down the things you specifically talked about, and email it to him with a note saying why you are emailing it. If he's anything but apologetic in your conversation, add to your statement about emailing a documentation, "And I'll copy Jane Doe in HR on the email, so that everything is properly documented."

If this doesn't stop the behavior, you need to file a specific complaint. First, look in your employee handbook and follow any procedures outlined there. If there is no employee handbook, or you can't find it, or it's unclear what the procedures are, then type up your complaints in an email and title it, "Formal Complaint of Age Discrimination." Detail the comments and any evidence of actual discrimination (bad projects, smaller raises, etc.) in the email. Send the email to your HR department.

HR should investigate. Cooperate. Be honest. Don't get trapped in the idea that every joke or off topic comment is due to discrimination. Understand that the consequences you perceive as being discrimination due to your age may well be because of your part time status.

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