Ageism, another way to discriminate – Mary T. O’Sullivan

By Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL

“All my life, I faced sexism and racism and then, when I hit 40, ageism.” – Rita Moreno

It seems there’s no escaping it. When you are an executive coach, people will approach you wanting to discuss some serious work issue. As has become common, people frequently contact me to talk about their disturbing work matters.

A few weeks ago, I mentioned the incident where a woman stood up on a chair in a public meeting and mocked another woman. Within a few days of hearing that episode, I received a text message from a former colleague who was feeling ageism on the job. This person had been in his role for at least 10 years, and as is typical in discrimination cases, had excellent performance reviews, which suddenly became mediocre or worse. The lesser reviews were a concern to this person, but what came next was a slam in the face. He was called into his boss’s office for an out of cycle performance discussion. The kernel of the discussion was the company’s annual bonus program. The company’s bonus system was very generous, with people earning bonuses of up to 100% of their salary, incredibly. So, you can imagine the person’s shock and dismay when his boss opened the discussion by mentioning that the company performance in general was not as stellar as planned, and specifically, his department’s performance was subpar, which directly reflected on him personally. Therefore, the message was that his bonus was being reduced by 70%.

Even more alarming were the additional reasons given for the reduction in bonus. The boss’s reasoning was based on a false assumption. This person, in a casual conversation months earlier, mentioned that he was retiring from the Army Reserves, and would be receiving his Army pension soon. The boss then presumed that the person would also shortly be retiring from the company, a plan that had never come up in any conversation, formally or informally, with the boss, HR, or anyone else. The boss continued his conversation with the comment that because he supposed the person was retiring in the near future, and he had his Army pension coming in, that he wouldn’t need the bonus money. Then the boss announced that he was allocating the majority of the bonus money to the younger employees to “encourage them to stay with the company”.

My former colleague was stunned and distressed beyond words and called me to find out what his options might be. He sensed that he was indeed the victim of discrimination, but was so taken aback by the conversation, couldn’t put his thoughts together quickly enough to formulate a response. After some discussion, I confirmed that his experience was clear cut age discrimination, especially since the criteria for reducing his bonus was based on allocating more of the bonus pool to younger employees. I suggested he begin to document his conversations with his boss about the status of his bonus, and get clarity from HR. It sounded to me as if the company was looking for an excuse to get rid of my colleague, and using his age and bringing up the existence of his Army pension was a pretext for discouraging him from staying with the company. I warned him to watch for other discriminatory actions that may result from another negative HR tool, “constructive discharge”; that is when a company deliberately makes work so intolerable, that the employee will just quit on his own. Constructive discharge is a very nasty way to get rid of someone, and I saw it happen several times during my 30+ year career in industry. It’s uncomfortable to watch when everyone knows the company has it out for a particular individual.

Yet, I haven’t heard any resolution to this potentially career damaging problem. I can only hope my colleague lands on his feet. Being told your bonus is reduced by 70% is a clear sign that your company is not supporting you and your options are limited. And recently, fighting ageism has become one of Title VII’s most difficult areas to fight. According to a recent study, workers aged 55 and older will represent 25% of the nation’s workforce by 2024. And 36% of people interviewed believe that age was a factor in being turned down for a job opportunity. There is no doubt that my colleague has been subjected to prejudicial treatment. My hope is that he recovers from his shock and is able to recover enough to figure out what he can do about it. Otherwise, he may find himself out of a job in the near future.

“I started with racism and sexism in the beginning and fought them so hard and was finally ready to relax. Then, here comes ageism, and I feel like, Give me a break!” – Yoko Ono


Editor’s Note: In posting this story for Mary, we went to our photo library provided by the photo service we use – not one photo of older people at work – only retired, walking, holding hands or in nursing homes. We’ll be following up on our communique with the service.


Connect with Mary:

Read all Mary’s columns here:

Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach, Society of Human Resource Management, “Senior Certified Professional. Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas. Member, Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society. Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University. Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM.