Speedos, Post-Its and Age Discrimination

Did you hear about the Long Island lifeguard who was fired for refusing to wear a Speedo for his annual swim test? Roy Lester was in his late 50s at the time, and he sued. I say good for him.

Age discrimination comes in many forms. A recent headline-grabbing example: Many higher paid employees over age 45 lost their jobs, while leadership training was directed to younger workers. This EEOC-supported suit resulted in a $3 million judgment against 3M. Apparently the maker of Post-it® notes and hundreds of other useful things laid off hundreds of workers 45+ in a 2.5-year period.

Talk to anyone who is unemployed and over 50 about the job interview process, and examples of age bias-some subtle, some not so subtle-abound. “We have a very young culture here. Do you think you’ll fit in?” Or, “We need people who can learn new things and adapt quickly” – implying you won’t be able to.

Most employers know better than to say “too old” out loud. Usually it’s just a thought…or it’s said quietly, behind closed doors. Occasionally it gets documented like in the case against Austria-based Anton Paar, which took over a U.S. subsidiary. Turned out there were a number of gray areas for plaintiff Robert Hale, who was 60 when he was hired and 65 when he left. (See the background and the verdict in The Case of the Forced Retirement in AARP Bulletin.)

Highly frustrating for unemployed 50+ workers is when they don’t make the short list for an interview for a job they could clearly do. If they call to inquire and are lucky enough to reach a human, they hear “overqualified,” “too much experience,” or “we wouldn’t be able to afford someone like you” – even when they’ve made it clear that the salary range was acceptable. And it’s even harder now given the tough economy and the tight job market.

Back to Roy Lester, the lifeguard. A triathlete, he’s more fit than most men half his age. He’s been saving lives for decades. Why should he have to wear a Speedo for a swim test when it doesn’t affect his ability to do the job?

Roy, I’m glad you blew the whistle. And I hope you win your case in your next appeal.

Workers: Learn more about age discrimination, from legal definitions to what to do if you think you’re a victim, and what you’ll need to make your case.

Employers: See AARP’s Employer Resource Center for information and tools to help you make the most of your multigenerational workforce.