Did I Get Fired Because I’m Old?
How Does An Employee Figure Out Why She Was Fired?
It is often hard to determine exactly why an employee was fired. Because most jobs in Arizona fall into the category of “at-will employment,” employers are free to fire their employees for just about anything. In fact, the employer doesn’t even need to have a reason. Although these laws do offer some protections to employees, it can be puzzling and emotionally taxing for an employee to try to figure out what led to her firing.
Older Workers Are Especially At Risk When Terminated
For many fired employees, the best option is to simply find a new job and get back to work as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, older workers tend to face a long, uphill battle in finding a new job. (See, e.g., “For Older Workers, A Longer Job Search,” Catherine Rampell, New York Times, March 5, 2010). When these employees find that they are having difficulty finding new work at their age, it often leads them to question whether their age was also the reason they got fired in the first place.
The Age Discrimination In Employment Act Protects Workers 40 And Older
In response to the very real challenges faced by unemployed older workers, Congress enacted the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”) which generally makes it illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee or potential employee because of that person’s age—but only if the person is forty or older. [See, e.g., 29 U.S.C. 623(a) & 631(a)]. In addition, the ADEA doesn’t offer blanket protections to those over forty—it applies only when an older worker is discriminated against in favor of a younger worker. See General Dynamics Land Systems, Inc. v. Cline, 540 U.S. 581, 590 (S.Ct. 2000). For example, if a forty-five year old employee is fired so that a fifty-five year old can keep his job, then the ADEA has not been violated. Even though the forty-five year old falls within the protected age group, the fact that it was someone much older who benefitted from the discrimination means that it was not illegal.
Clues To Determining If An Employee Was Fired Because Of Her Age
So what is a recently fired older worker supposed to do? It is rare for a supervisor or human resources department to come right out and say, “You’re getting fired because we like young people better.” Occasionally, an employer might make an offhand comment to an older worker such as, “I love these young guys—they have so much energy.” A single comment like this may not mean much, but a pattern of these types of comments over time can add up to a work environment where older workers feel undervalued and underappreciated. If the older worker then ends up getting fired, these comments take on additional significance—indicating that the younger workers were favored at the expense of the older workers.
However, the clues to age discrimination are usually more subtle than that. Certain questions can help an employee figure out whether his age was the reason for his termination. For example, what is the overall age range of the company or department where the fired employee worked? Was he the only employee over forty? Is almost everybody else in the department substantially younger than him? Is it rare for a new employee over forty to be hired? If the answers to these questions indicate that there is a company culture that favors young workers over older workers, then the fired older employee may, indeed, have a valid claim for age discrimination.
In the end, it is rare for a fired employee to know with certainty that she was fired because of her age. A consultation with a wrongful termination lawyer can help the employee figure out whether there is a valid claim for age discrimination, and if so, what are her options for pursuing that claim.
Rex A. Christensen practices employment discrimination law in Gilbert, Arizona. He can be reached at (480) 378-2400.
This article does not constitute, and should not be considered, legal advice, and you should consult with an attorney regarding your own specific legal matters. The existence of this article or your reading of it does not create an attorney-client relationship. Neither the Christensen Law Firm nor any of its attorneys may represent you without first establishing that doing so will not create a conflict of interest.
Rex A. Christensen is licensed to practice law in Arizona only.