Ageism in the Workplace
- Patricia BrownellPatricia BrownellSocial Service, Fordham University
Older workers make important contributions to the workplace, its productivity, and its culture. Work remains important for older adults for financial security, to give meaning to later life, to maintain social networks, and to promote lifelong learning. However, ageist beliefs about the capacity of older adults to remain productive and contributing workers in the workforce can create barriers for older workers. Understanding how older workers experience ageist behavior in the workplace can help employers, policy makers, and social workers learn more about how to address this social problem. Organizations can become more age friendly through enabling workplace programs, supportive management, and proactive human resource managers. Social workers serving older adults in employee assistance programs and in private practice can help them to challenge ageism in the workplace. Finally, legislation such as the Age Discrimination in Employment Act protects the rights of older workers; however, more legislation is needed to address bullying and harassment of older adults in the workplace.
Older adults, particularly in developed western countries like the United States, are living not only longer but also healthier lives and many seek to remain productive in the workplace, through both paid and volunteer work. These trends are not confined to the United States. Under the auspices of the United Nations, a comprehensive international aging agenda and plan of action for its implementation is included in the International Plan of Action and Political Declaration adopted in Madrid, Spain, in 2002. This international aging agenda emphasizes the importance of older people and the vital role they play in society, including the workplace (United Nations, 2003).
Despite these developments, negative images of aging continue to be perpetuated that portray older adults as burdens, a drain on society, and incapable of keeping up with the demands of the modern workplace. As a result, many workplace environments remain inhospitable to older adult workers, placing them at risk of discrimination and mistreatment in the workplace (Brownell & Kelly, 2013).
Employee mistreatment in the workplace has been a topic of interest in Europe, Australia, and Canada in the last 10 years and in gender studies in the United States. However, to date, there has been little discussion, research, and practice and policy development to ensure the protection and well-being of older adult workers in a workforce that has recently been challenged by recession, global financial instability, and technological change. For example, the social work profession promotes optimal functioning of vulnerable populations in diverse social contexts.
To date, the primary focus of social work research, practice, and policy development related to aging and work has been that of caregivers in the workforce. Scholarship on workforce discrimination has focused on the impact for other vulnerable groups such as women; people of color; immigrants; and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) population. Given the emerging paradigm of aging and wellness (NASW, 2008), social workers need to shift focus toward old age as a time of continued productivity, growth, and social participation. Examining workplace issues in aging requires social workers to not only understand resilience factors, but also assess barriers such as ageism to promoting active and productive aging.
Ageism is a term coined by Dr. Robert Butler in 1968 to describe the “systematic stereotyping of and discrimination against older people because they are old, in much the same way as racism and sexism are responses to skin color and gender” (Butler, 1989). The International Longevity Center identifies four categories of ageism. Personal ageism is defined as ideas, attitudes, beliefs, and practices on the part of individuals that are biased against persons or groups based on their older age. Institutional ageism is defined as missions, rules, and practices that discriminate against individuals or groups because of their older age. Intentional ageism include ideas, attitudes, rules, or practices that are carried out with the knowledge that they are biased against individuals or groups based on their older age. This might include practices that take advantage of the vulnerabilities of older people. Unintentional ageism, or inadvertent ageism, include ideas, attitudes, rules, or practices that are carried out without the perpetrators’ awareness that they are biased against persons or groups based on their older age (International Longevity Center, 2006). Another definition of ageism includes positive ageism as any prejudice for or against an age group, such as assuming all old people are wiser and happier than younger people (Palmore, 1999).
Mistreatment of Older Workers.
Mistreatment of older workers has been linked to ageism, age discrimination, and age prejudice (International Longevity Center, 2006). Ageism can be manifested in the home, institutions, and the workplace, and it is both a civil and human rights issue. Abuse of older adults occurs in large part due to negative attitudes toward older people (Canadian Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, 2011). Ageist behavior has been identified as a sub-set of age-differentiated behavior, and elder abuse is considered the most egregious type of hurtful age-differentiated behavior directed at older adults (Pasupathi & Lockenhoff, 2004).
Although elder abuse is often associated with care dependency of the victim, this is far from reality. Active aging is now recognized as a normative stage in the aging process and most people live active, productive lives well into old age (Mellor & Rehr, 2005). In response to this conceptualization of the aging process, the paradigm of elder mistreatment is expanding to include mistreatment of older people in the workplace (Brownell & Powell, 2013). A key element of mistreatment of older adults is that abusive acts are perpetrated by trusted others, and this can include workplace colleagues (Georgia Anetzberger, personal communication, November 23, 2011). Underlying negative societal and individual assumptions about aging and older people, manifestations of ageism can result in mistreatment of older adult workers that takes the form of bullying, harassment, and discrimination.
By the year 2030, adults aged 65 years and older will represent almost 20% of the population in the United States (Administration on Aging, 2008). Similar increases are occurring in the workplace. The labor force participation of men aged 65 and older increased from 17.9% in 2002, to 20.5% in 2007, and to 21.9% in 2009 (Administration on Aging, 2010; U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2008).
Not only are the baby boomers getting closer to traditional retirement age, but also they appear likely to continue their labor force participation longer than their predecessors did. As a nation confronts an aging workforce, it is also an increasingly broader class of workers for whom the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provides the right to protection (Wakefield & Uggen, 2004). In 2004 the EEOC reported having received almost 18,000 complaints filed under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (U.S. EEOC, 2006). The number of age-based complaints rivaled the number of charges filed under the Americans with Disabilities Act and was not far behind the more common categories of sex- and race-based complaints. This suggests that age discrimination in the workplace is increasingly an issue of concern to government, employers, and older people themselves.
Recently a number of age discrimination cases have gone to the courts, with mixed results; in a litigious society this is likely to continue. In the United States, for example, an older worker lost an age discrimination lawsuit in the U. S. Supreme Court (Gross v. FBL Financial Services, 2008), making it more difficult legally to prove age discrimination by an employer, even if it involves pain and suffering (Noguchi, 2012). However, more recently, legislators introduced a bill to restore older workers’ rights by reversing the Supreme Court’s age-biased ruling (Editorial, 2012).
Scholarship on age and work has a long history (Brooke & Taylor, 2005), but in discussions on workplace harassment, age has typically been left out of consideration. Studies that focus on age as a dimension of power examine its impact within various domains of social life, but not necessarily within the context of paid employment (Hess, 1990; Levy, 1988). Concomitantly, relative to sexism, for example, less attention has been paid to how ageism is manifested in the work environment (McMullin & Berger, 2006).
Other researchers have described the dynamics and features of workplace violence and harassment, including the development of a typology of generalized workplace harassment that includes covert hostility, verbal hostility, manipulation, and physical hostility (Rospenda & Richman, 2004). Others have studied workplace abuse, including bullying and mobbing (Koonin & Green, 2004). A recent study of older workers and harassment found that older workers identified having their work contributions ignored, being left out of decision making that affects one’s work, and being talked down to by co-workers and bosses. These behaviors represent perceived mistreatment in the workplace. Older workers generally reported that they did not tend to discuss harassment with others when they experienced it (Blackstone, 2013). Findings from this study underscore the importance of discussing negative workplace experiences with older workers and providing ways to support them in the workplace.
Ageism in the Workplace and the Media
Newspapers reach a large audience and play an important role in promoting or inhibiting public views of active and dignified aging. By examining newspapers it is possible to study how portrayals of older adults in the workforce reflect positive or negative public perceptions of older adults. These public perceptions influence how individuals, including older adults themselves, think about aging and productivity, the treatment of older workers, and the formulation and implementation of public and private policies and programs that affect older workers (Powell, 2013).
A recent analysis of images of aging in newspapers found both negative and positive themes of aging in the workforce. Older workers were reported as creating problems in the workforce through an unwillingness to leave the workforce, causing intergenerational tension with younger world-be workers unable to find job openings, demonstrating a lack of respect for younger managers and bosses, incurring a high cost to society for benefits and entitlements, and engaging in litigious behavior against employees (Powell, 2013). Other articles advised older workers to hide or downplay their age, to avoid being perceived as old (considered a negative attribute), and highlighted the conflict between older workers’ need to remain in the workplace for economic reasons in a recessionary downturn and the vulnerability of older workers to layoffs and difficulties getting rehired after losing or leaving a job.
Stereotypes of Older Workers
Contemporary society is characterized by stereotypes that associate old age with physical and mental decline. Changes in organizational culture and climate that might help older workers are often limited due to a lingering negative perception of age. Common misconceptions of older workers include the beliefs that older workers take more time off, have decreased performance, have more accidents, are less adaptable, are merely waiting to retire, take jobs away from younger workers and are incapable of learning new things (AARP, 2007). Additional misconceptions are that older, compared to younger, workers experience greater fatigue, are more resistant to change, are unenthusiastic and less knowledgeable, are less interested in training, and are less willing to gain new knowledge (Butler, 2008).
These stereotypes, which are rooted in long-standing and pervasive public attitudes, deny older workers opportunities and resources. Negative attitudes about old age are imbedded in theoretical perspectives that incorporate pervasive beliefs about older people. The decline model views old age as a time of decay, decline, and disengagement (Clark, 1997). In this model, old age is viewed as a period of life in which older persons lose their health, power, credibility, authority, and vital energy. Americans have been identified as ambivalent toward older workers (Schrank & Waring, 1989). On one hand, older workers are honored for being productive in old age and, on the other hand, are believed to be disengaged, dependent, and unproductive. These beliefs are reflected in workplace policies and practices. As a result, age-related organizational policies are inconsistent and tend to revolve around the false notion that older workers cost more and are less productive than younger workers (Posthuma & Campion, 2009).
The realities of older workers, especially those from the baby boomer generation, dramatically contradict this misconception (Gibson, Jones, Celia, Clark, Epstein, & Haselberger, 2010). These workers are likely to be in better health, better educated, trained in technology, and able to compensate for chronic illness and disabilities that were common among older workers in the past. Often it is ageism, rather than labor cost and performance considerations, that prompt corporations to force out older workers, despite a lack of evidence that younger workers are more intelligent, creative, dedicated, or productive (Posthuma & Campion, 2009).
A workplace environment reflects the beliefs, vision, and leadership style of top management and these, in turn, determine workplace practices (Ciampa & Chernesky, 2013). Organizational leaders influence workers’ commitment to their jobs and their organizations, worker satisfaction, and productivity. The climate and culture of an organization and its human resources department and the attitudes of personnel to their work situation and to their coworkers also affect how staff relate to clients or customers and their effectiveness in serving them (Garrow & Hasenfeld, 2010).
Organizational culture refers to the deep structure of organizations, rooted in the values, beliefs, and assumptions of organizational members. It can create a work environment that is supportive and satisfying for older workers or is inhospitable and hostile for them (Chernesky, 1998; Denison, 1996). The standards against which worker behavior is evaluated are those of the majority culture, and reflect the attitudes and values of those who hold positions of power and authority. Persons who are perceived as different or outsiders may not meet these standards and, therefore, may not be allowed to participate fully in the organization and reap its benefits (Chernesky, 2005).
Some workplaces are hostile and offensive environments. In such workplaces, employers, supervisors, and workers tolerate discrimination; harassment; slurs; jokes; and both intentional and unintentional acts that reinforce biases, differences, and disparities among individuals. These workplace characteristics pollute the work environment, disrupt productive work, and lead to burnout (Chernesky, 1998). Work environments with a high frequency of such characteristics may be termed toxic organizations. Organizational toxicity is defined as “the outcome of emotionally insensitive attitudes and actions of managers and the practices of their companies . . . [that act] as a noxious substance, draining vitality from individuals and [the]. . . entire organization” (Frost, 2003, p. 13).
Organizational climate, in contrast to organizational culture, “is widely defined in terms of employees’ perceptions of their work environment” (Glisson, 2000, p. 196). The climate of any given organization is an aggregate of individual psychological climates; it is important in that it impacts workers’ behavior and attitudes and influences organizational effectiveness and efficiency. Both climate and culture are powerful because they affect relationships among workers, and interactions between workers and customers or clients (Hemmelgarn, Glisson, & James, 2010). Differences in attitudes about work between older and younger workers can result in intergenerational conflict and tension (Daily, 2011).
Practice Strategies for Age-Friendly Workplace Environments
Supportive workplaces promote worker motivation and satisfaction. Managers should ensure that the organizational climate and culture of their organization support older workers and enable their companies to reap the benefits of employing older workers. Through the use of proper strategies, managers can reduce or prevent toxic work environments, augment worker strengths, protect workers, and amplify worker resilience to adverse organizational conditions (Zunz & Chernesky, 2000).
Research has demonstrated that older people are vulnerable to negative perceptions and stereotyping (Hedge, Borman, & Lammlein, 2005; James, Swanberg, & McKechnie, 2011). Addressing negative factors in the workplace including micro-aggressions, defined as a series of minor but constant, gratuitous indignities based on identity characteristics (Sue, 2010). Other factors mitigating negative stereotyping, including resilience of older workers themselves (James et al.), can strengthen workplace responses to older workers. An analysis of model programs highlighted by AARP as representing age-friendly workplace practices can begin to identify those structures and key elements that provide positive support for older workers (Ciampa & Chernesky, 2013).
Some key programmatic and organizational structures and elements found to be helpful in supporting an aging workforce include: flexible work and retirement arrangements, lifelong learning opportunities, training, promoting health and diversity, innovation, workplace culture, workplace design, and promoting work-life balance in work arrangements. In addition to the organizational factors that reflect age-friendly policies and promote a positive environment in which older workers can remain valued and productive members, there are also individual factors that can facilitate resilience of older workers in these environments (James et al., 2011).
An additional practice strategy to secure an age-friendly workplace is to identify and strengthen worker resilience. Resilience has been defined as a dynamic process of coping in the face of adversity (Allen, Haley, Harris, Fowler, & Pruthi, 2011). More specifically, it applies to rebounding from stress and returning to a balanced state of health and well-being, sustaining a sense of purpose and continuing to strive to achieve goals thanks to vision and purpose, and positive growth in response to stressful experiences (Hall et al., 2010).
Both internal and external factors contribute to an individuals’ ability to withstand negative attitudes and work cultures and to continue to thrive in spite of them. In addition to enabling workplace structures, age-friendly workplace policies and practices have an important role to play in eliminating ageism in the workplace and strengthening the ability of older workers to challenge it when it occurs.
Human Resource Departments and Older Adults in the Workplace
Human resource departments in organizations have a significant role to play in addressing ageism in the workplace, and protecting older adult workers and organizations from ageism employment practices (Woolever, 2013). If older workers are to have their legal rights recognized and if the workplace is to be free of mistreatment or discrimination, then the onus is on human resource managers to secure and enforce these conditions. To do so, managers must assume the dual role of both compliance and ethics officers in their organizations.
A compliance officer is principally concerned with guaranteeing that management and employees observe the criminal and regulatory laws applicable to their organizations, with the primary task being to prevent illegal behavior. Compliance officers may seek to reduce inappropriate behavior by implementing training programs geared to educate employees about imposed norms and standards that represent organizational rules of conduct. While a compliance officer is concerned with what an organization must do, in contrast, an ethics officer is concerned about what an organization should do. An ethics officer is concerned with shifting an organization from an “avoidance of legal sanctions” mindset to one that endorses and demands ethically sound behavior throughout the company (Woolever, 2013). For this to occur, human resource managers must be proactive in creating and implementing an organizational culture that prizes moral integrity.
According to Paine (1994), there are five key markers that characterize an organization committed to moral integrity: guiding principles and commitments are clearly communicated, company leaders are personally committed to acting on its core values, values are incorporated into the routine-decision making process and are reflected into every important organizational activity, systems and structures support and reinforce the company’s core values, and managers have the necessary knowledge and skills to make ethical decisions on a daily basis (Woolever, 2013).
Ethics Committees and Codes
The implementation of moral integrity into an organization demands that concrete and tangible measures be put in place by management. Depending on the size of the organization, the creation of an ethics committee to oversee compliance and ethical issues sends an important message about the importance of this function to both employees and consumers. Not only should the ethics committee ensure that both regulatory and ethical standards are established within the organization and communicated to all stakeholders, but also that any moral dilemmas or allegations of misconduct are investigated. It is important that workers are represented on the ethics committee. Further, to ensure that ageist practices are addressed, older workers should participate in important ethical decision making processes, including developing a code of ethics (Woolever, 2013).
Codes of ethics fall into two categories: inspirational codes and prescriptive codes (Sullivan, 2009). Inspirational codes articulate values that are important to stakeholders, including trustworthiness, respect, compassion, justice, and courage. The limitation of this type of code is that it may be global and lack specificity. Prescriptive codes offer more specificity by identifying key behaviors that must be adhered to by management and employees alike. By incorporating values like respect for older workers, codes can highlight the expectation for age friendly practices and signal a lack of tolerance for ageist behaviors and policies.
Creating Supportive Workplace Environments for Older Workers.
As codes of ethics become integrated into the organization’s culture, human resource managers must be active in providing incentives and opportunities to older workers to ensure they feel able to speak out about ageist practices and behaviors. This in turn enables older workers to participate in monitoring ethical conduct and work more efficiently for the organization. Policies and practices need to be put in place that provide support and encouragement for older employees’ work performance, intrinsic motivation, and physical and psychological health (Hedge, 2008).
Human resource managers must also be vigilant against ageist stereotyping, which can appear in two forms. The first is age stereotyping, referring to the misconceptions people have about age and worker capabilities. This can result in older workers being denied training opportunities based on a mistaken belief that older people cannot learn new skills. A second is age norming of jobs, which involved establishing a correlation between job duties and the typical age of the worker performing these jobs. This can lead to a prejudicial bias that a job is beyond the ability of older workers. Both types of stereotyping can result in flawed work appraisals that are based more on age than on performance (Woolever, 2013).
There are a number of reasons why ageist biases and behaviors should be eliminated from organizations. One of course is that of legal liability. However, there are more reasons to retain older workers besides addressing concerns related to liability. Older workers have work experience, strong work ethics, and wisdom as well as talents, loyalty, and organizational memory. Hallmarks of age-friendly organizations include flexible job opportunities, such as flextime, flexlocation, job sharing, and phased retirement options, all of which fall within the domain of the human resource manager to develop and implement. Job training tailored to the capabilities and needs of older workers can be designed and implemented under specifications set by the human resource director as well (Woolever, 2013).
Adequate and appropriate supervision is also important for older workers to ensure an age friendly workplace environment. In a study of older workers, James et al. (2007) reported that when judging the effectiveness of their supervisors, older professional workers identified five key areas of employee engagement: opportunity for promotion and career development, schedule input, flexibility, perceived fairness, and job alignment.
Many of the recommendations set forth by research centers to keep older workers engaged and avoid ageist workplace practices are the same criteria offered by management experts to enhance creativity and innovation in for-profit and non-profit organizations (Amabile, 1999): ensuring older workers know their work makes a difference; freedom and allowing older workers the freedom to determine how best to complete projects and approach problems in ways that will stretch their abilities; training that gives older workers the same opportunities as younger workers; designing training sessions in ways that allow older workers to gain new technological skills in a self-paced manner; supervision that provides older workers with a supportive, enabling and sensitive workplace environments; supervisory encouragement that generously recognizes the unique efforts of older workers, including mentoring new and younger workers and serving as role models; and adequate organizational support (McEvoy & Blahna, 2001).
America needs older workers to compete in the new global economy, and it is the responsibility of human resource managers to retain, retool, and reengage older workers with insightful and ethical policies and procedures (Woolever, 2013).
Older Workers Confronting Ageist Stereotypes and Discrimination
Research shows that older workers contribute many positive attributes such as knowledge, productivity, work ethic, stability, honesty, dependability, and mentoring (Berger, 2009; Hall & Associates, 1996). Despite significant life and work experiences, pervasive ageism operates in overt and covert ways to discriminate against older workers in hiring and workplace practices (Bendick, Brown, & Wall, 1999; Genevay, 2000; Noonan, 2005).
Workplace discrimination against older workers is often based on systemic negative stereotyping. An employment supervisor can use a negative ageist stereotype (she can’t keep up with the work) and an abuse of power to subtly demean and then dismiss a worker to replace her with a less expensive younger employee to gain a short term profit (Jackson, 2013). Negative stereotypes commonly held by employers about older workers include beliefs that older workers are inferior to younger workers and less adaptable, less interested in technological change, less trainable, less physically strong, less healthy, less creative, less mentally alert, and have a less functional memory. These negative biases held by employers have been linked to reduced opportunities for hiring, training, promoting, and retaining older workers (Chiu et al., 2001).
Negative based stereotypes may impair the performance and health of older workers. Stereotype threat refers to the expectation that individuals will be judged on the basis of a negative stereotype about their social group membership rather than their actual performance and potential (Steele et al., 2002). A substantial body of empirical evidence with other groups vulnerable to negative stereotyping has established that individuals’ performance can be harmed by the awareness that they may be judged on the basis of negative stereotypes, regardless of the accuracy of the stereotypes and whether the individuals themselves believe the stereotypes are true (Block, Koch, Liberman, Merriweather, & Roberson, 2011).
Meaning of Work in Later Life Transitions
Social workers can be helpful to older workers by exploring strategies for coping with stereotype threat and managing ageist work discrimination. However, first social workers should assess the meaning of work for the individual in the developmental context of his or her life transitions. Older people are diverse, more than individuals at any other developmental stage of life (Erikson, 1963). The diversity in work-related concerns and experiences of older adults requires confirming, negotiating, and reforming their work role identities.
Noonan (2005) interviewed a sample of older individuals who were working or actively seeking employment. The issues reported by these older workers included experiencing age discrimination in hiring and premature termination with demoralizing relational disruptions; financial concerns; wanting part time work for reasons of health, balance, or regenerative goals; seeking structure or meaningful activity through work; and identifying specific work environments and conditions consistent with their evolving identities and life transitions.
Helping professionals, such as social workers, have an important role to play in helping older workers. They can provide invaluable empathic understanding by non-judgmentally eliciting, reflectively listening, and accurately affirming clients’ perceived experience of ageist work discrimination. A therapeutic relationship is further built on the assessment of the specific meaning of work for each client (Jackson, 2013).
In a study of the strategies used by older adults for managing age discrimination in their search for employment (Berger, 2009), two types of tactics were identified to offset negative stereotypes: counteractions and concealments. The majority of older adults tried to counteract prospective employers’ ageist stereotypes by maintaining their skills and keeping up to date in training. When confronted with age discrimination in their job searches, most of the participants reported they changed their work-related expectations regarding the goals, type, or geographic location of employment they were seeking. Concealment strategies used to deal with age discrimination included altering their resumes, modifying their physical presentation to appear more youthful, using current buzzwords in their field, and reframing responses to age-discriminatory questions (Berger).
Although counteraction and concealment strategies for managing ageist work discrimination may help older adults cope more effectively with potentially negative stereotypic responses, older workers need a range of coping strategies to maintain their performance and health while negotiating long-term exposure to workplace stereotype threat and discrimination (Berger, 2009).
A Model of Coping Strategies
Drawing from social, organizational, and counseling psychology literatures, Block et al. (2011) proposed a conceptual model of coping strategy responses to long-term stereotype threat in the workplace. The model posits three response sets to stereotype threat: fending off, becoming discouraged by, and remaining resilient to the stereotype.
Fending Off the Stereotype.
When affected older workers fall short of their goals, they may use internal attributes for failure, which is a strategy members of stigmatized groups use to fend off stereotypes at work (Block et al.). Particularly when discrimination is ambiguous, stereotyped individuals tend to attribute negative outcomes to their own inadequacies (Block et al.). Over time however, individuals faced with repeated discrimination who rely on internal attributions for failure to meet goals may become discouraged and depressed (Jackson, 2013).
Jackson (2013) discussed the response sets to stereotype threat older workers may use when experiencing ageism in the workplace. One strategy older workers use to cope with is that of fending off the stereotype. Affected workers work vigorously to demonstrate the stereotype does not apply to them. Invigoration or overcompensating by working harder to the extreme is an example of this strategy (Jackson). Although this may result in a high level of productivity, negative consequences may include poor mental and physical health (Block et al., 2011).
Two other coping strategies for fending off stereotypes at work are identity bifurcation, where individuals reject aspects of their identify that are subject to discrimination, and assimilation, whereby individuals attempt to assume the characteristics of the more positively regarded social group. For example, they may alter their work history and physical appearance to de-emphasize their age and appear more youthful.
The benefits of effectively communicating one’s skills from a substantial portfolio of work experience, and by highlighting their energy, strength, and adaptability as well as youthful appearance through altering hair color and careful dressing, are that an appearance of youthfulness can be projected. On the other hand, there may be potential costs of using identity bifurcation and assimilation strategies (Block et al., 2011) or concealment strategies to demonstrate they are not a “typical” member of their age group. Rejecting their social identity age cohort group may be a stressful and unsustainable strategy over time.
Discouraged by the Stereotype.
One coping strategy used in this response is psychologically disengaging one’s self-esteem from one’s work performance, for example by minimizing performance feedback. Others include making external attributions to discrimination rather than one’s own ability or performance, anger directed at the perpetrator or oneself, and psychological or behavioral withdrawal from the workplace, resulting in negative work attitudes, tardiness, absenteeism, or turnover (Jackson, 2013).
Resilient to the Stereotype.
Older workers who are subjected to workplace stereotype threats who still remain engaged in their work and satisfied with their careers may use coping strategies that demonstrate resilience (Jackson, 2013). Individuals who respond to stereotype threat with resilient strategies demonstrate a capacity to acknowledge and yet recover from work discrimination setbacks and redirect their energy in ways that foster further development. Challenging negative group stereotypes by directly confronting and educating members of the dominant group about the effects of their misconceptions is one example of a resilient coping strategy.
Another resilient coping strategy is positive distinctiveness, where individuals communicate favorable attributes of their social identity group (Block et al., 2011). Collective action is a resilient coping strategy of joining others to promote change by raising awareness of the influences of negative stereotyping and promoting the shift to more inclusive norms. Redefining criteria for success at work is another resilient coping strategy for older adults facing ageism in the workplace. Engaging in entrepreneurial enterprises is one example of this strategy. While starting one’s own business may require business capital, starting a consultant business or branching out while still employed may draw on human capital without a large investment in money, and compensate for diminished opportunities in the workplace due to age stereotyping (Jackson, 2013).
Social workers—whether they serve as Employee Assistance Program (EAP) professionals or practice in counseling centers or privately—can play a significant role in helping older adult clients cope with ageism in the workplace. In addition to empathy and affirmation, which were referenced earlier, they can help the older worker victimized by ageism in the workplace by providing an assessment of the older worker’s situation. The social worker and older adult client can then begin to identify where the older worker is in relation to his or her current life and developmental transitions, as well as the client’s assets and sources of support (Jackson, 2013). In addition, the social worker should identify the client’s goals in confronting challenges and barriers. These goals will then lead the social worker and the older client to develop constructive coping strategies for managing the ageist discrimination faced by the client in her or his work setting (Jackson).
The Block et al. (2011) model of responses to stereotype threats can be used to guide social work intervention with workers who experience workplace ageism or discrimination.
Fending off the Stereotype.
The strategies should reflect where the client is in the continuum of responses to ageist discrimination in the workplace. Taking clients’ needs into account, social workers should consider counteraction strategies for managing the work situation, while discussing with clients the costs and benefits of each strategy. For example, although counteraction and concealment strategies for managing ageist work discrimination may help older adults maintain agency or remain centered when faced with potentially negative stereotypic responses on the job or in a job search, it is important that clients maintain their performance and health while negotiating long term exposure to workplace stereotype threat and discrimination (Jackson, 2013).
Discouraged by the Stereotype.
Coping strategies for this stage of response to ageist work stereotypes may be anger with the perpetrators such as co-workers or supervisors, devaluing or discounting negative work evaluations, or withdrawal from other interaction at the workplace. Although these are understandable responses and may have short term gains of reducing stress, there are obvious longer term consequences such as disrupted interpersonal relations and declines in work performance that could be used to justify further negative ageist responses by administration (Jackson, 2013). Further, risks for depression and other negative mental and physical health responses are high. Fortunately, counseling can be helpful at this phase of response by an older worker to an ageist workplace situation. Studies have shown that older adults respond well to a variety of counseling interventions (American Psychological Association, 2003). Also, social workers can empathically affirm the understandable anger older workers feel when confronted with an ageist stereotype threat in the workplace, and help them redirect the anger toward constructive goals (Jackson).
Resilient Toward the Stereotype.
The social worker can help older adults consider resilient coping strategies when facing a persistent ageist workplace situation. Benefits to using the resilient coping strategies of challenging the negative stereotype of the group is that he or she may be labeled as a troublemaker and isolated from the dominant group, so it may preclude the stereotyped group from achieving more equitable treatment (Jackson, 2013). Group level strategies for challenging ageism in the workplace, although not without risks, can effectively result in more equitable changes that have long term benefits (Block et al., 2011).
Other resilient interim coping strategies include using internal coping strategies such as silence, avoidance, and self-talk; seeking sources of social support from friends, co-workers, and partners (as well as social workers and other counselors); and taking action to confront the discriminatory act, such as talking directly with the offender, taking complaints up the line, and using other venues to expose systemic ageist workplace practices (Chang et al., 2009). Social workers can also help older workers advocate for reasonable workplace accommodations and support older workers to develop helpful adaptations in the workplace to facilitate their inclusion and work productivity (Jackson, 2013).
Although empirical evidence has disputed commonly held ageist stereotypes, employment and workplace discrimination based on negative ageist stereotyping against older adults is prevalent (Chiu et al., 2001; Gringart et al., 2008). Workplace stereotype threats (the expectation that older workers will be judged by ageist stereotypes instead of by performance and potential) impair not only their work productivity but also their mental and physical health. Social workers who provide counseling for older workers can provide important support and assist clients to develop effective strategies in challenging these practices (Jackson, 2013).
Legal and Legislative Issues in Protecting Older Adults in the Workplace
Some laws and employment policies prohibit age discrimination in hiring and workplace practices; for example, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (U. S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 2011) provides some protections for people who are 40 years and older. Despite these laws and policies, ageism in hiring and workplace policies is often subtle and insidious, particularly for people approaching or beyond the traditional retirement age of 65 (McVittie et al., 2003).
Of the limited laws and regulations that protect older workers, the most significant is the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA). The ADEA provides discrimination protection to workers aged 40 years and older, who work in companies with 20 or more employees. It protects job applicants and employees from discrimination on the basis of age in hiring, promotion, discharge, compensation, or terms, conditions, or privileges of employment. The ADEA covers individuals, partnerships, labor organizations and employment agencies, and corporations that engage in an industry affecting interstate commerce. The Act also controls state and local governments and is enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (Spencer, 2013).
In addition, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1975 prohibits discrimination on the basis of age in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance. The Act, which applies to all ages, permits the use of certain age distinctions and factors other than age that meet the Act’s requirement. The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 protects disabled workers in companies of 14 or more employees (Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990). The law requires that an employer provide reasonable accommodation to an employee or job applicant with a disability, unless doing so would cause significant difficulty or expense for the employer. A reasonable accommodation is any change in the workplace (or in ways things are usually done) to help a person with a disability apply for a job, perform the duties of a job, or enjoy the benefits and privileges of employment (EEOC, n.d.).
Although the ADEA acknowledges ageism as a social problem that disproportionately affects employees 40 years of age or older, it does not address ageism as a human rights issue (Powell, 2010). The ADEA is an employment law that addresses ageism from an economic perspective. It can award back pay and future loss, but there is no recovery for emotional distress or punitive damages. There has been little movement to reframe age discrimination from an economic issue to a human rights issue in the United States (Powell).
Barriers to Implementation of Age Discrimination Laws
For a law to benefit an older worker it must effectively prevent harm from occurring or offer meaningful and timely access to remedies. It must be responsive to older workers’ needs and acknowledge their realities. For many reasons age discrimination law has a long way to go in protecting older workers (Spencer, 2013). In the United States, the procedural requirements for an ADEA lawsuit are complicated. Before an individual can sue in her/his own right, a private plaintiff must file charges with the EEOC or with an appropriate state agency. The EEOC may also sue to enforce the ADEA. There is a 3-year statute of limitations for both government and private law suits, starting from the date of an alleged willful violation. For cases of non-willful violations, the statute of limitations is 2 years from the date of the alleged violation (Spencer).
United States Laws Against Workplace Harassment, Bullying, and Abusive Work Environments
Over the past 9 years there has been a sustained effort in the United States to legislate against harassment in the workplace. The impetus for this effort has reflected concerns about the growing extent of the problem in the workplace and its negative effect on businesses, the people targeted, and other employees. Since 2003, 21 American states have introduced a version of the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) that would ban bullying in the workplace. The HWB is modeled on anti-discrimination law and is intended to “address the most egregious, harmful and severe forms. The HWB puts the misconduct on a par with domestic violence and other potentially traumatizing experience” (Healty Workplace Bill, n.d.).
California became the first state to consider the legislation. The California HWB would have amended the state’s Fair Employment and Housing Law, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of enumerated characteristics such as age, gender, and race (California Fair Employment and Housing Act, n.d.). The amendment would have made it an unlawful employment practice to “subject an employee to an abusive work environment.” The bill defined an “abusive work environment” as a “workplace where an employee is subjected to abusive conduct that is so severe that it causes physical or psychological harm to the employee” (California Healthy Workplace Bill, n.d.).
These healthy workplace laws shift much of the responsibility for fixing the harassment problem from the targeted employee to the employer. Healthy workplace laws also redress inadequacies in anti-discrimination laws that focus on specific grounds or categories of discrimination or harassment, such as age, race, disability, and sex. Healthy workplace laws displace the unreasonably high level of standard of conduct that is needed in private tort cases for intentional emotional distress and require a threshold of outrageous conduct.
The HWB provides a legal remedy for employees who are subjected to an abusive work environment by allowing them to sue both their employer and the alleged bully for monetary damages, and protects employees from liability (Habinsky & Fitzgerald, 2011). If the employer has a policy in place (a preventive act) and enforces it (so the situation is corrected promptly), then the employer also avoids liability. This does not mean the work environment will be harassment free, just that there are steps in place to reduce and address its occurrence. For an individual to collect damages, the laws require the person to prove harm, which is shown by evidence from a licensed health professional that shows a negative health impact to the targeted worker (Spencer, 2013).
Anti-bullying legislation imposes a form of civility code on the workplace. It sets a high standard for misconduct, gives workers a reason to terminate or sanction offenders, and plugs gaps in current state and federal civil rights protections. The process of enforcing workplace rights and the attendant costs are important issues in this area. The U.S. HWB does not involve state agencies to enforce any provisions of the law (Spencer, 2013). That has been used as a selling point to states in enacting and implementing the law. It is an economically efficient approach to cost containment, but it means the harassment law may lack teeth. The Bill also requires plaintiffs to use private attorneys, incurring costs to enforce their right to be free from harassment. This disadvantages workers who are poor.
Relying on occupational health and safety provisions to address workplace harassment has come under criticism. This is because the theoretical foundation of most occupational health and safety laws is one of shared responsibility of employer and employee. Within that framework, the targeted older employee is expected “to do her part to fix” the problem of the harassment. This may make sense in terms of asking witnesses to report the harassment. However, placing the responsibility of fixing the problem on the target of harassment flies in the face of the dynamics of harassment, as reflecting the power and control of the harasser. It treats harassment as an interpersonal rather than an organizational matter. Harassment, as an issue at law, is usually viewed as resulting from personal conflict (a one-to-one behavior intended to target a specific individual based on specific characteristics) rather than from a deficient workplace environment or business culture. This view distracts attention from the consequences of a workplace environment that is unsupportive of older workers and is chilling toward the rights of older workers (Spencer, 2013).
While progress has been made in protecting older workers against age discrimination, harassment, and other forms of workplace abuse, much remains to be done. The laws discussed here largely view older workers as a homogeneous group without reference to important intra-group differences. In the future, these laws should consider how ageism intersects with other forms of discrimination, and legislators should ensure that workplace laws and legal procedures allow older workers to make effective use of existing legal remedies. Social workers have a role to play in educating older clients about legal remedies, and in advocating on behalf of legislative change based on client experiences that identify gaps and needed legal remedies.
The Future of the Older Worker
The paternalistic notion of old age as a time of frailty, dependency, and need is being rebalanced with more realistic notions of an ever increasing number of people moving into old age with vigor, health, purpose, education and skills, and a desire to remain productive in the workplace well beyond the traditional retirement age. Also, older adult workers are beginning to raise their voices about workplace discrimination, abuse, and mistreatment. Media coverage of ageism in the workplace is increasing and social welfare scholars are beginning to re-examine the institution of retirement using an ageism lens.
However, it is important to recognize that not only do older adults need to be resilient, but also the existing attitudinal, structural, social, and legal barriers to age-friendly workplaces must be challenged. Elder abuse can occur even to older adults who are not frail or dependent. And research has shown that even the most resilient older adult can wilt in the face of abuse, bullying, and mistreatment, whether in institutional settings, in the home, or in the workplace. Both strengthening environmental protections and promoting personal resilience in the face of abusive workplace practices and policies remain essential to ensuring opportunities for older adults to be fully productive in society.
It is also important to avoid unrealistic optimism that litigation and legislation alone will reduce the problem. Addressing ageism and abuse of older people in the workplace will take a combination of individual, organizational, and national interventions from the bottom up and the top down. Having established that ageism is a social issue of growing importance and having identified the role that abuse and bullying of older people can play in the workplace, more must be done at the individual, organizational, and societal levels to remedy ageism in the workplace. With the worldwide increase in the aging population, eliminating barriers to full participation of older workers is imperative.
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