Translating Legalese: The Age Discrimination in Employment Act

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) was enacted in 1967 to protect individuals over the age of 40 from discrimination in the workplace. However, despite the ADEA’s existence, age discrimination still pervades the job market, often hidden beneath vague job descriptions and euphemistic language. One such case is the use of the term “early career” by HR departments, which some argue can be code for illegal age discrimination. Recently, one company, Lilly USA, LLC, settled a nationwide class action lawsuit, agreeing to pay $2.4 million and provide other equitable relief related to their “Early Career” hiring initiative, which included an expressed preference for hiring millenials.

In this blog, we will explore how the “early careers” hiring preference might violate the ADEA, and what steps can be taken to address this issue.

The ADEA’s primary objective is to ensure that individuals are evaluated and compensated based on their skills and abilities rather than their age. It makes it unlawful for employers to discriminate against employees or job applicants on the basis of age. Despite this legal protection, age discrimination persists in the job market, and one way it often materializes is through a stated or implicit preference for “early career” employees. Employers frequently include the term “early career” in job descriptions and job postings, which on the surface might seem like a harmless way to describe entry-level positions. However, this seemingly innocuous term can, in fact, mask age discrimination. It creates an implicit bias against more experienced workers, often older employees who are deemed “overqualified” or too costly to employ.

Further, using the term “early career” as a preference in hiring can be seen as a veiled form of age discrimination. When employers emphasize hiring early career professionals, they may inadvertently favor younger applicants over more experienced candidates, irrespective of their qualifications and capabilities. This preference can result in older workers feeling marginalized and excluded from job opportunities. It can also discourage older workers from applying for positions they are well-qualified for. This creates a chilling effect where older job seekers may not even bother to apply because they believe that their age puts them at a disadvantage.

To combat age discrimination in hiring and to decode the “early career” conundrum, several steps can be taken:

Awareness and Education

First and foremost, it’s crucial to raise awareness about the issue. HR departments should be educated about the potential implications of using “early career” in job postings and encouraged to be more mindful of their language to ensure it does not inadvertently discriminate against older workers.

 Reframing Job Descriptions

Employers should consider reframing their job descriptions to focus on the skills and qualifications required for the position rather than using age-related terms. This shift in language can attract a more diverse pool of applicants.

Scrutiny of Hiring Practices

Regular audits of hiring practices can help identify and eliminate age-related bias. Employers should ensure that all applicants are given a fair chance and that their qualifications are the primary consideration in hiring decisions.

While the use of “early career” in job descriptions may not be an explicit form of age discrimination, it certainly raises concerns about implicit bias and the exclusion of older, experienced workers from job opportunities. Addressing this issue requires a collective effort from employers, HR departments, and job seekers to promote fairness and equal opportunity for all, regardless of age. The ADEA remains an important legal safeguard against age discrimination, but it is also crucial to address subtle, coded language in job postings to ensure that age discrimination is eradicated from the hiring process.

The ensure your job postings, employee handbooks, and subsequent policies and forms are using clear, unambiguous language, partnering with Wagner, Falconer & Judd for an HR & Compliance consultation is a simple way to mitigate risk and protect your business-and employees.