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Jul 25, 2013

By Eric B. Meyer

Under federal law, the bar is set higher for proving age discrimination, as opposed to other forms of unlawful discrimination based on protected classes such as race, gender, or disability.

While difficult to prove, a recent article from The New York Times suggests that age discrimination in the workplace may be more common than we realize.

In this week’s The New York Times, Michael Winerip wrote this article focusing on a Princeton study in which test subjects were shown a video of a white male named “Max.” Some viewed a compliant Max. Other saw footage of an assertive Max. The test subjects were then asked to give their opinion about Max.

Illustrating “subtle bias” in the workplace

Ah, but there’s a twist.

For some of the test subjects, Max was played by a 25-year-old actor. Other test subjects watched a 45-year-old Max. And others saw a 75-year-old Max.

For those who saw the 25- or 45-year-old Max, it made no difference whether he was compliant or assertive. But students who saw the 75-year-old actor gave the assertive Max a high negative rating.

According to the Times article, these results “illustrate the subtle bias older men and women may face in the workforce.” Mr. Winerip further posits that age discrimination at work “has always been harder to identify and quantify than race and sex discrimination.”

Blacks and women have experienced a long history of being underpaid, which researchers can calculate in salary differentials. The math is less straightforward for older workers. They may have been unfairly demoted, and yet still earn more than their younger co-workers.”

While tough to prove, as the working population ages, it stands to reason that age discrimination claims will rise just based on sheer numbers. So, employers really need to be careful — way more careful than the one discussed here  — when making employment decisions (e.g., layoffs) that could impact older employees more so than younger employees.

This was originally published on Eric B. Meyer’s blog, The Employer Handbook.

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