I am in that group of early boomers entering the ‘golden years of retirement’. So are most of my friends.
I’ve been retired for a little over four years now and during that time have watched a number of colleagues of my age finish their working years under circumstances which point to subtle new forms of age discrimination in the private work force.
What follows is a description of several different practices and tactics Companies are using to ‘get rid of’ older employees’ in (strictly speaking) legal, yet highly questionable ways. Ways which stretch the rules governing age discrimination in employment, denigrate the individual, and take advantage of older employees who are often at their most vulnerable economic point in life.
Why are Companies doing this? The answer(s) are fairly obvious.
1. Older employees tend to be among the higher salaried component of the work force.
‘Dumping’ such people presents an immediate expense reduction for a Company.
2. Older employees, particularly those in middle management, present a blockage to
promotional opportunities for younger, less expensive talent. The ‘baby boom
particularly exacerbates this situation with so many older workers in the work force today.
3. ‘Right to Work’ laws offer Companies extreme leeway to discharge employees ‘without
cause’. Although as written, there are so called restrictions against age discrimination,
the ‘without cause’ clause is a virtual blank check for Companies to come up with
excuses for getting rid of older employees – supposedly legally.
4. Older employees possess the least leverage in protecting their jobs. For example,
individuals nearing retirement are less likely to ‘put up a stink’ when confronted with
changing work conditions which younger employees may challenge under threat of
leaving and taking their future potential, desperately needed by Companies, with them.
Older employees are viewed as having already reached their maximum potential and
are thus considered ‘expendable’.
So let’s categorize and discuss the tactics being used by Corporations to rid themselves of older employees.
REDEFINING PRODUCTIVITY STANDARDS
This is probably the most frequently used tactic. Companies always need to reduce costs by finding ‘cheaper, better and faster’ ways of doing business. It’s the nature of business.
Although there are a number of totally valid ways of accomplishing this, including such things as introduction of automation, and analysis and redesign of processes to eliminate redundant and otherwise unnecessary effort, these ways require financial investment on the part of Companies.
It is far cheaper and easier to ‘raise the bar’ as the saying goes in the Corporate Land by simply increasing the number of widgets employees are expected to produce in defined timeframes (daily, weekly, monthly, etc.). This requires no more investment than the editing of existing Performance Standards and publishing of new Standards.
And who is more likely to be able to meet (or at least TRY to meet in the short term) the new expectations? Is it the sixty-something employee or the bright eyed bushy tailed twenty year old?
Whether or not the new standards are realistic or sustainable over time is immaterial. The mere establishment of them provides an immediate opportunity to turn an older, long term ‘valued’ employee into an underachiever who can be placed on probation and let go for non performance. After that’s been done and expense reduction benefits achieved, Companies can simply redefine Productivity Standards again to adjust to the threat of burn out on the part of the overworked younger employees.
REORGANIZATIONS AND REDUCTIONS IN FORCE (R&R’s)
It is common practice for Companies to reorganize internally for a variety of perfectly valid reasons.
Many Companies go through cycles of centralizing or decentralizing operations. This is common in the Services Sector. There is always some rationale associated with these kinds of organizational moves; however, as often as competitive forces drive them (e.g., the need to open a new office to expand business), once again, expense reductions are also, and often exclusively, a prime incentive – particularly in a contracting economy.
In either case, reorganizations – whether internal to an individual office or as part of a centralize/decentralize move – are most often accompanied by Reductions in Force (RIF’S in common parliance.) RIF’s can be achieved as a result of economies of scale, elimination of redundant positions or even changes in business or product strategies.
When Companies reduce their work force they generally are very careful in documenting exactly who has been let go and the distribution of personnel let go by age (among other things). The reality, however, is that RIF’s can be used to eliminate non performing younger (i.e., less costly) employees but at the same time eliminating older, more expensive employees. On paper it all looks legal and above board and the Company achieves its objectives but the end result to older employees is the same.
REDEFINING PERSONNEL POLICIES AND PROCEDURES
This is a tactic which was used by a colleague’s Company to enable them to include her as part of a RIF.
It involves the constant revision of Personnel procedures defining the circumstances under which employees may be placed on probation or Performance Plans, for how long, and how they can (or more accurately, cannot) achieve what is necessary to be taken off and considered as contributing employees.
In my colleague’s case, she was a twenty five year employee of a Company which desperately needed to reduce expenses. She was also the highest paid employee among her group.
First, she was a victim of the Redefinition of Performance Standards ploy described above, accompanied by a deliberate reduction in her workload which precluded her from being able to meet the revised Standards.
When first put on a Performance Plan for non-performance (almost two years ago) the Company’s Policies and Procedures contained a definition of how the Performance Plan worked. When she achieved what was defined in the Procedures Manual she discovered the Procedures had been changed and she was still considered a non-performer. This process was repeated several performance cycles until, when the RIF finally occurred, she was included as part of the RIF and her high salary saved.
In her case, the Company was able to justify including her in the RIF on the basis of non performance; however, it is a clever way of disguising age discrimination on an ongoing basis.
ELIMINATION OF RESPONSIBILITIES
This is a tactic used to ‘nudge’, ‘encourage’, and even ‘force’ older employees at higher levels of management out of the work force.
It is an insidious tactic which preys on the psyche of employees by gradually reducing their job responsibilities to the point where they feel useless, their daily activities are largely make work, and pressure is exerted as their peers observe what’s going on and even commiserate with them. The latter simply reinforces the loss of self worth to the point where what amounts to non-voluntary retirement becomes preferable.
I saw this tactic used by a Company to force another colleague of mine into retirement earlier than desired.
Although my retirement was voluntary, what happened to me at the Company I worked at for twenty five years was disturbing and left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Although not as egregious as other experiences described in this article, it is something folks looking at retirement need to watch out for, anticipate, and understand the dynamics involved.
After receiving Performance Appraisals of ‘Exceeds Requirements’ for the overwhelming majority of my career, upon retirement my last Performance Appraisal reflected a ‘Does Not Meet Requirements’. Needless to say, this was an unexpected slap in the face and although it didn’t affect me financially, having been in Management most of my career I knew exactly what was going on.
My Company used a ‘Forced Ranking’ methodology which required that a certain percentage of employees be classified in each Performance Category. Since I was retiring, my Manager chose to place me in the lowest Performance Category to meet the Performance Classification requirements he was expected to meet across the entire Division I worked in.
Bottom line, age discrimination comes in many shapes and colors. Only those with deep pockets can even begin to challenge Companies for this most onerous treatment of older employees. And even then the scales are weighted so heavily in favor of Corporate America that a successful challenge under current employment laws is unusual and even unlikely.
Where for preceding generations retirement was a life event to be looked forward to, in today’s business and economic environment, surviving as an employee UNTIL retirement is possible and affordable is more difficult than ever.