In my experience as an employment lawyer representing employees, I've found that the recession was particularly hard on older employees. They seem to have been disproportionately targeted in layoffs, and they have a much harder time finding new jobs.
Employers might assume you're close to retirement and don't need a job, but that's far from true for most Americans. They might also assume that older employees will miss more work or have more medical issues. Yet statistics show that older employees tend to be the most reliable. It's not only foolish to discriminate based on age -- it's also illegal for most companies to do so.
Who's Protected From Age Discrimination?
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act says that it's illegal for an employer to discriminate against you because of your age, but that only applies if you're age 40 or older, and only if the employer has at least 20 employees (or is a government of any size). Some states, counties and cities have laws that protect employees of smaller organizations. Some states also have laws that further limit age-based discrimination. Always check with an employment lawyer in your state when in doubt.
But How Do I Prove Age Discrimination?
Here are the top signs that you might be a victim of age discrimination:
1. Biased comments
These are the most obvious signs, and thus the rarest. If your boss calls you "grandma" or "old man," asks you about your retirement plans, says that they want a younger image, or says that your best days are behind you -- document it. This could be considered direct evidence of discrimination. If there are any witnesses, write down their names. Note dates, times and places.
Look around you. Pay attention to how younger employees are treated. If they are treated differently than you under the same circumstances, that could be evidence of age discrimination. Who was laid off and who wasn't? If older people were the primary targets, start writing down their names, along with the names of younger, less-qualified employees who were kept on.
3. Disparate discipline
If you're disciplined for something that younger employees do without consequences, write it down. They might be building a case against you due to your age.
If you're more qualified than a younger employee, but you're not chosen for a promotion that you applied for, it may well be due to your age.
If younger employees are given the best leads, assignments and equipment, this could be a sign of age discrimination. Additionally, if older employees are excluded from key meetings, or if the boss only socializes with younger employees, then these too may be signs of age-based discrimination.
6. Hiring younger employees
If you see a pattern of your company hiring only younger employees, or if you are turned down for a position that you apply for and see it given to a less-qualified younger employee, it may be a sign that the company is discriminating due to age.
7. Suddenly stupid
Does the attitude at work change after you hit an age milestone? Or does a new boss only like younger employees? If you turn, say, 50 or 60 and suddenly get negative performance reviews and write-, you might have an age-discrimination claim.
If it doesn't affect you in the wallet, it's considered harassment. If you think your boss is trying to make you miserable due to your age to try to get you to quit, or if you're being called names and made fun of due to your age, start writing it down.
9. But the boss is older
Even if the boss is your age or older, if they prefer younger employees over older ones, it still might be age discrimination.
What to Do If You're Being Subjected to Age Discrimination
If the company hands you a severance agreement and you think you've been targeted for layoff due to your age, contact an employment lawyer. They might be able to negotiate a better severance package for you. Plus you might be giving up rights that you don't need to sign away. Always read and understand before you sign.
If you're being harassed (something that doesn't affect you in the wallet) because of your age, then the Supreme Court says that you have to report it, if the company has a harassment policy, and give them a chance to fix the situation. Only if they don't remedy it, or if the harassment continues, can you file a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or your state agency. If you just up and quit, or if you skip this step, you may lose your right to sue for discrimination.
If it's an adverse employment action, like denial of a promotion, a demotion, suspension without pay, or termination/layoff, you need to file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC (they're at http://www.eeoc.gov) or your state/county/city agency before you can sue.
You will have either 180 days or 300 days from the date of discrimination, depending on your state, to file with the EEOC.
Your state/county/city might have different deadlines. Don't miss your deadline! This is a requirement before you're allowed to sue.
Federal employees have a completely different set of rules for filing a discrimination claim. They have 45 days to see their designated EEOC counselor, with an entire investigative process that circumvents the EEOC. There's a morass of tangled hoops to jump through, so if you work for the federal government be particularly careful not to miss any deadlines.
Most importantly, if you think you're the victim of age discrimination, gather your notes and evidence and go see an employment lawyer in your state, so that you can find out whether you have a potential claim and what you need to do under your state's laws.
Stories from CNN Money