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Researchers explore bias behind age discrimination in workplace

Age discrimination in the workplace is prohibited under both Minnesota and federal laws, but it is becoming more common all the time. According to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, workers filing claims related to wrongful discharge due to age discrimination represented 23 percent of all individuals filing claims in 2012. They represented on 19 percent in 1997. Meanwhile, the percentage of individuals filing claims for race discrimination decreased and the percentage filing sex discrimination held steady.

The most obvious reasons behind this apparent trend are that the population is aging and that older workers generally have higher salaries and health costs than younger employees. But age discrimination is also notoriously difficult to prove.

Researchers studying age discrimination recently concluded a study of people's biases related to age, using an eye-opening experiment. The Princeton University researchers gathered undergraduates and showed them a video of a man they called Max, but who was actually played by an actor. In each video, Max recited the same script, except that in half the videos he said he appeared to have a compliant personality and in the other half he appeared to have an assertive personality. After watching one of the videos, each student was asked to state an opinion of Max.

What the students didn't know was that there were actually three different actors playing Max. One was 25, one was 45 and one was 75. Researchers found that the students did not have strong reactions to the younger Max when he appeared assertive, but had very strong negative reactions to the 75-year-old Max when he appeared assertive.

Researchers said this could shed light on age-related workplace discrimination. Younger workers may appear assertive at work without negative repercussions, they said. In fact, bosses often value that kind of attitude in younger workers. However, the same bosses may unconsciously feel biased toward older workers who display the same attitude.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, when an older worker loses a job, it typically takes two to six months longer to find a new one than it does for younger workers. Numerous other studies and statistics show that age discrimination in the workplace is real. Minnesota workers who have been fired, demoted, forced into early retirement or not hired because of their age should get help understanding their legal rights.

Source: New York Times, "Three Men, Three Ages. Which Do You Like?" Michael Winerip, July 22, 2013

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