Older Workers Easy Targets for Bullies

One of the easiest demographic groups to bully in the workplace is older workers – even people who are not really that old.  Just on the far side of middle age!

The current economic climate is like a “perfect storm” for older workers. There is record unemployment for workers aged 55 and above and there is record age discrimination.

It is not surprising that the 2011 CareerBuilder survey found that women aged 55 or older are more likely than any other demographic group to report feeling bullied in the workplace.

The  Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reports that unemployment for persons aged 55 and above has increased sharply since the beginning of the recession in December 2007. The jobless rate among older workers was 7.1 percent (seasonally adjusted) in February 2010, just shy of the record-high level of 7.2 percent in December 2009.

In addition, the BJS says that older workers remain unemployed longer than younger workers. The BJS states that nearly half (49.1 percent) of older jobseekers had been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer in February 2010, compared with 28.5 percent of workers aged 16 to 24 years and 41.3 percent of workers aged 25 to 54 years.

Meanwhile, complaints to the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission by older workers also are at an all-time high.  In five years, the number of age discrimination complaints has increased FORTY PERCENT. Here are the most recent EEOC statistics about complaints that allege violations of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which supposedly protect workers over the age of 40 from age discrimination.

  • 2010; 23,264
  • 2009: 22,778
  • 2008: 24,582
  • 2007: 19,103
  • 2006: 16,548
  • 2005: 16,585

One wonders what recourse older workers have in bullying situations? These individuals obviously have more reason than others to fear unemployment.  They do not have decades to prepare financially for retirement and they also have more reason to fear the loss of health benefits. Meanwhile, statistics show that once unemployed, they will be unemployed far longer than younger people, and rampant and obvious age discrimination will make it difficult for them to find a new job.

And if all of that isn’t bad enough, older workers are discriminated against by federal law. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act,  29 U.S.C. §§ 621 et seq., makes it “unlawful for an employer . . . to discharge any individual . . . because of such individual’s age. Id. at § 623(a).”   However, to prevail on an ADEA claim, the U.S. Supreme Court says you must establish that “that age was the ‘but-for’ cause of the employer’s adverse action.” Gross v. FBL Fin. Servs., Inc., 129 S.Ct. 2343, 2351 (2009).  With other types of discrimination lawsuits, the victim need only show that discrimination was a motivating factor in the adverse action.

Comparing genders and age groups, the CareerBuilder survey found that the segments that were more likely than others to report feeling bullied were women, workers ages 55 or older (29 percent), and workers age 24 or younger (29 percent).    One-third (34 percent) of women said they have felt bullied in the workplace, compared to 22 percent of men.

What is really surprising about all of this is that the problem does not appear to be on ANYONE’S  radar screen – even groups like the AARP (American Association of Retired People,  a.k.a., the insurance company that purports to represent the interests of older Americans).  Meanwhile, Congress and the courts have made it far more difficult for older workers to prevail in age discrimination lawsuits compared to other victims of discrimination because there is effectively a higher standard of proof under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act compared to other federal discrimination laws.

It’s like a silent epidemic.  And that’s particularly tragic when it comes to targets of workplace bullying because overwhelming research shows  targets of bullying may suffer severe psychological and physical damage.

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