pelotonRPM in the News: T.J. Simers and the Minefield of Age Discrimination

Published in HR Technologist

An employee comes to you saying someone on the team said they’re too old and should be put out to pasture. What would you say? What would you do?

The announcement of a $15.5 million jury award against the L.A. Times (reportedly $22 million including interest) in favor of T.J. Simers, a former sports columnist, reflects the growing risk companies face regarding age discrimination complaints.

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median age of American workers was 42 years in 2016. According to Hiscox USA, a specialty insurance company, nearly a quarter of U.S. workers over the age of 40 claim they have experienced age bias in the workplace. Even though an estimated 70 percent of these kinds of complaints are made to front-line managers as opposed to HR or the legal department, we have found that managers are not prepared to handle these critical conversations effectively. And, as the Simers award illustrates, the cost of mismanaging these complaints can be substantial.

pelotonRPM recently conducted a study in which managers from a wide range of businesses – small, large, and across industries – participated in live role-play simulations in which actors portrayed employees making an age discrimination complaint. In the simulated scenario, an employee claimed they had been passed over for an important promotion by Jeff, a Vice President, due to their age.

The simulations uncovered the extent to which unconscious bias can come into play with ageism. For instance, in simulated conversations about sexual harassment complaints, managers consistently and promptly explained to the employee that their complaint would be escalated to the attention of HR or legal. When an employee made an allegation of age discrimination, however, the managers’ behavior was notably different. Despite the evidence presented to them, the majority of managers effectively downplayed the likelihood that age was a consideration in the promotion process.

They made statements like “I appreciate you coming to me with this, but I just can’t imagine that age factored into Jeff’s decision in any way…” Several managers actually suggested the complainant should spend time with Jeff out of the office to strengthen their personal relationship. Regardless of intention, this behavior was effectively dismissing the employee’s serious and sincere concerns. Imagine yourself in the position of the complainant – working up the courage to address an incredibly difficult and personal issue with a senior leader of your company, and then being told you should go out and have a beer with the alleged perpetrator. In our simulations, the result was a disillusioned and disgruntled employee who felt their complaint was not being taken seriously or treated appropriately by the company. A call to an employment lawyer is a logical next step.

We believe the managers’ behavior may be related to a cognitive bias called the “Just World Fallacy” – that’s just as in justice. In this scenario people feel a strong need to believe the world is fundamentally fair and will rationalize perceived injustice even if it may result in blaming the victim. The Just World bias may be even more of a factor in ageism cases, because the managers are subconsciously reluctant to accept the fact that they themselves may fall victim to such discrimination at some point in the future. In their view of a Just World, that could never happen.

We do not know if this well-known bias was a factor in the Simers case, but we have consistently seen during our simulations that managers are not well-trained to recognize their own biases about age and to handle critical employee conversations about this issue effectively. As a new generation of younger managers begins to assume greater responsibility in corporate America, these tensions are likely to escalate. Companies need to train their managers in a way that provides them with the real-world skills they need to navigate these risky conversations successfully. If they don’t, workplace culture will suffer, and the financial liabilities will continue to grow.