Human Resources News & Insights

Bullies increasingly targeting older workers: What to look for

If your company has some employees who have decided to put off retirement for a few more years, you’ll want to keep an eye out for this troubling workplace trend.

Whether it’s managers that are trying to push older staffers out, or younger co-workers who feel more mature employees are keeping them from moving up, the incidents of bullying aimed at older employees seems to be on the rise.

The proof: Twenty-nine percent of employees age 55 and older said they’ve been bullied at work, according to a recent CareerBuilder study.

Even more troubling: The number of age-based harassment claims received by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2011 was 6,406, up from the 5,181 the EEOC got in 2007.

Where to look

So it may be a good idea to tell managers and supervisors to be on the lookout for incidents of bullying aimed at older staffers. Also, let all employees know: Bullying in any form will not be tolerated in the workplace.

4 most common signs

It’s important to recognize the signs of workplace bullying.

Here are four of the most common forms of workplace bullying:

1. Verbal insults. Example: Bob calls Sean “stupid” because of a mistake, etc.

2. Slandering a co-worker’s name. Telling people that Marnie’s sleeping around with younger co-workers, or Lloyd has a drinking problem.

3. Excluding certain workers. Being excluded from the majority of departmental activities.

4. Unreasonable management. A supervisor saddling an employee with an inordinate amount of work –or an unwarranted disciplinary action.



Print Friendly

Subscribe Today

Get the latest and greatest Human Resources news and insights delivered to your inbox.
  • LH

    All of you are in a protected class, even when you are the majority – white male or female .

    Know of previous case of a several women harassing a white male. Supervisor shrugged it off saying he wasn’t protected since he was not a minority. Lawyer wouldn’t touch it. Should go both ways!

  • HR Director

    I am concerned about the “gray” area of bullying. Went to a seminar yesterday and part of it addressed everything from ccing other people on email (if you are pointing out errors) to gossiping. What exactly are we calling bullying versus bad behaviors in the workplace. Has the government issued a definition? I agree with the EEOC commentary. Let’s be clear on what is happening here…legally.

  • GT

    as EEOC stated, there is a difference between bullying and harassment. If you take the four examples listed above, it would be very difficult to prove harassment based on age. The first example could be used to raise the issued of harassment against a disability (whether the disability existed or not). The other three examples of bullying could have anyone as the target, not just an older employee.

    At my company, we make it very clear the difference between harassment (protected by law) and bullying (not protected but against company policy).

    The company defines bullying as behavior by someone who harms, demeans, intimidates, ridicules, insults, frightens, persecutes, degrades, humiliates or threates another individual without attacking a protected class. This included gossip and foul language in the workplace.

  • Joe

    Note to the sarcasm impaired: The following response is sarcasm. It is designed to compare how people often try to defend bullying aimed at one group, while they would never dare use similar language against a different group. It’s supposed to sound stupid, mean and thoughtless. For a fun game, see which other groups the same comments could be applied to, and not considered mean, just “factual.”

    I don’t mean to sound insensitive, but these older workers just bring this on themselves. They didn’t have to decide to live so long, and they should have retired at a reasonable age. Scientific studies have shown that old people are a drain on business. They cost more in health insurance claims and they impede work-flow because they are both physically and mentally slower. They CHOSE to become old. Why must I have to shoulder the burden of their lifestyle choices and unwillingness to retire?

    Sounds nasty, doesn’t it? But the funny thing is, if you replace two of the words in this rant, there are millions of people who would see nothing wrong with it.

    Spoiler – Answers below.

    Replace old with obese and retire with lose weight. Then it’s A-OK!
    Discrimination based on physical characteristics is wrong. Bullying based on prejudice should be a crime.

  • JulieE

    I love your response Joe and agree though I’m sure a lot of people will mis-read this despite the fact that you said it was sarcasm and slam you!

    I fall into both of those catagories and I’m definitely feeling the sting on both subjects. I’m not sure if people think you should just go away and commit suicide if you get older and over weight or what. I certainly can’t afford to retire! [And before I get slammed for not planning for retirement keep in mind that I starting working at $1.68 per hour and raised a child without any monetary help from my now ex-spouse.]

  • Common Sense

    Joe. I get the sarcasm and stand against bullying when I see it. However, I think the analogy is a bit of a stretch. I can replace old with obese and retire with lose weight but the statement no longer makes sense. Obesity is almost always indeed a lifestyle choice, aging is not. (unless you count suicide as an alternative).

    Are you really advocating that bullying be a crime? As wrong as bullying may be, do you want the government to prosecute “Mary” as a criminal because she called “John” a “fatty”? Would this be a Federal crime? Would this crime demand jail time or just a monetary fine and community service? Are you ready for an America with official “thought” police? I can not think of a bigger bullying institution in America than our own federal government. They already have the biggest stick and are not afraid to use it.

  • Bullied

    Common Sense – you really are oversimplifying what bullying in the workplace entails. It’s more than a boss calling an employee “fatty”, although, the boss who was bullying me did do that to another employee. You must have never experienced bullying by a boss, but I did — for 8 years. This guy picked out his victims one by one because they were too fat, too old or too ugly. He started with the fat girl and harrassed her so badly that she quit. The second victim was an elderly man who was a great worker, but the boss didn’t like older people in the workplace – actually voiced to me once that when you reach a certain age, you don’t belong in the workplace and if you can’t afford to retire, it’s your own fault. This poor man ended up sick from the abuse (I’d find him crying sometimes) and ended up forced to quit. He died a few months later and his wife told me that this abusive boss robbed her husband of his dignity during his last few years in our workplace. This boss next found a way to fire an employee who was not only older, but unattractive as far as he was concerned. The next victim was me and it went on for years. Constant mean, cruel remarks whenever he’d pass my door, refusing to assist me or discuss work issues so that I was left on my own, not sharing information I needed to do my job and keeping me in the dark about things going on in the department and organization, etc., retaliation for imagined offenses, the abuses went on and on. My crime? I am over 50. During that time, the stress was constant and it enveloped my entire life. I developed an autoimmune disorder (RA) in the middle of this and that made me even more harrassed – he made me pick up heavy items when he knew I was having pain that day. He started this harrassment of another employee about my age at the same time. During that time, he came across a cute, young girl that he met in a bar, and wow, gee, guess who ended up on the payroll. Once she came on board, she was privy to everything that was happening in our department and organization while us older employees were kept in the dark about everything. The guy finally quit and we have no idea although, some of us think that he was asked to leave because his behavior was becoming a liablity in the workplace. His treatment of the older workers – not just in our department – had become very obvious and special favors and good treatment was reserved for the young, attractive girls. You have no idea how miserable this person made our lives. I still can’t believe I lasted through that for 8 years, but I didn’t know how I was going to get through the next 8 if he hadn’t left. I couldn’t quit my job and I found myself thinking that the only way to get away from the abuse was to be dead.

  • Joe

    Common Sense: If discrimination can be a crime I see no reason why bullying couldn’t. In my eyes it is a worse offense. Which is more damaging, I’m not going to hire you because I am prejudiced, or I’m going to hire you then torment you until your life sucks so bad you quit?

    And it seems that you missed my main point completely. Supposedly we are all protected from unequal treatment in the workplace, but to paraphrase Orwell, some workers are more protected than others.

    Bullied: Congratulations for surviving. It’s unfortunate that you’ll never get those years of misery back, and there is really no legal recourse for your suffering. Doubly so for the ones he managed to drive out.

    (Before anyone says suing is a viable action, look up the case law on the subject. One would have to prove, generally with written documentation, that the company knew about the manager’s actions, that the actions violated the rights of a member of a protected group, and they actively took steps to condone or cover up the behavior. It’s next to impossible.)

  • Common Sense

    I am not trying to oversimplify bullying and I know it can be a huge problem for workers. I have had to tackle this problem within our own company with a CEO. The man was brilliant, but we let him go because he was treating our employees so badly. Your bullier also sounds like a horribly abusive person and I am sorry you were targeted. I hope your boss eventually gets what is coming to him. However, laws are already in place to address some of the scenarios you mentioned. I don’t think America is ready for new laws criminalizing favortism, “cruel remarks” or “not sharing information” I fail to see how any of the bosses activities rise to the level of criminal conduct punishable with prison time.
    I know you say you couldn’t quit your job, but you were not forced to stay. I think if you wanted to you surely could have found other opportunities within the 8 years if it was really so bad.
    With that being said, I hope things are much better with your new boss.

  • Common Sense

    @Joe. If calling someone names becomes a criminal activity, where does the law stop? How is it enforced? Will Jonathon be put in jail for calling Tim an “incompetent imbecile” in the boardroom? Will Johnny be sent to juvi for calling Timmy “pimple face” on the playground? I am just asking because you said “Discrimination based on physical characteristics is wrong. Bullying based on prejudice should be a crime.”

    I would be real interested to see how your “Anti-bullying” legislation would worded and how the thought police would enforce it.

    The government was not nor should it be designed to fix every little injustice in life. We are not children and the government is not our nanny. Sometimes when there are is a problem, people just need to deal with it themselves.

    Why do you say that I missed your main point completely. “Supposedly we are all protected from unequal treatment in the workplace, but to paraphrase Orwell, some workers are more protected than others.” Exactly what point are you referring to? I completely agree with the Orwell quote and your version as well. It is undeniable that some classes are better protected than others.

    You say “Before anyone says suing is a viable action,… One would have to prove, generally with written documentation, that the company knew about the manager’s actions, that the actions violated the rights of a member of a protected group, and they actively took steps to condone or cover up the behavior. It’s next to impossible.”

    I am sorry to say, but this is exactly as it should be. I certainly hope you are not implying it would be okay to fine a company without proof that the company knew of the manager’s actions? Why should a company that does not tolerate bullying and discrimination be held liable for the actions of a rogue employee? Having deep pockets is not a justification for a lawsuit. This fits in with our basic tenet of the justice system: Innocent until proven guilty”

  • Bullied

    Who wants a lawsuit? I don’t. My employer, was in fact aware of this bullying going on. Several of us went to the president numerous times over the years and we were told such things as “well, he’s a bit insecure – just ignore him”,or that his “bullying was what made him a good manager”, things like that. However, I have no desire whatsoever of suing my employer. All I wanted was to have as normal a life as possible and not be harrassed and abused every day in my workplace – and why should I be pushed out of a good job after 30 years where I definitely could not find an equal one with the pay & benefits I am receving now) just because some insecure mental case was allowed let loose on the rest of us? I don’t think this “rogue employee”as you call him should have been allowed to take out his mental problems on regular working people who just wanted to make an honest living and allow him to get his jollies destroying people’s lives. All I wanted was for it to stop. I don’t know what the answer is, but this kind of behavior in a workplace just shouldn’t be allowed.

  • Joe

    @ Common Sense. What would happen if Jonathon called Tim a “shiftless [insert racial epithet]” in the boardroom? What would happen if a hiring manager said, “Women are too emotional to handle this job”? I don’t imagine anti-bullying legislation would look much different from any other established anti-discrimination law.

    I completely disagree with your third paragraph. One of the first things governments do (all the way back to the Old Testament and before) is establish rules for settling civil disputes.

    I said you missed my real point because you didn’t address it, rather you went on to express a “small government” perspective based on a minor comment I made.

    As for your last paragraph, what is “proof”? In a criminal case testimony from one witness is sufficient to put an accused person to death. In anti-discrimination cases witness testimony is rarely regarded as proof. The burden on the plaintiff is so high, all the respondent needs to do is say, “We don’t recall seeing any of this” [wink wink, nudge, nudge] and unless the plaintiff can produce documentary evidence to the contrary, say, in the form of a memo stating something to the effect of, “I don’t like old people. Ride Richard’s butt until he quits” you’re pretty much sunk. The disparity of what passes for proof when a person is accused and when a corporation is accused is laughable. Unless the management is totally clueless and inept, they are virtually immune from accountability. Is this truly “exactly as it should be”?

  • Joe

    Bullied: You say this behavior shouldn’t be allowed but you don’t want a lawsuit. That kind of leaves things in limbo, because lawsuits are the only recourse currently available. Corporations *should* hold their managers accountable for their behavior, but as in your case their response is often to make excuses for the manager, or try to hush things up. Especially if the manager in question is producing good profits. Corporations as a rule don’t have much of a conscience. They mostly understand money, and the easiest way to get their attention is to make it financially painful for them to continue employing bullies.

  • Common Sense

    @bullied I never once implied you wanted a lawsuit. I was not referring to your particular situation. I was replying to Joe’s comment bemoaning the difficulty in suing. I gave an example of a company that does not tolerate bullying, yet may have a “rogue” employee. Your situation was obviously different. I don’t pretend to have any idea of how your company behaved. I am sure you accurately describing the situation and take you at face value. Let it be clear that I am not defending the bully or a permissive company.

    @Joe. Let me see if I understand you. You said: “You completely disagree with my third paragraph” The paragraph where I said “The government was not nor should it be designed to fix every little injustice in life. We are not children and the government is not our nanny…” By completely disagreeing, you are saying we are children and we need a nanny government to fix every little problem. I am always shocked when I hear Americans speak as you do.

    Yes governments establish laws to contain and adjudicate civil conflicts. But, America was established on the principle of limited government and rugged individualism. I really don’t think anti-name calling legislation falls within those ideals.

    BTW, your examples are already covered by anti-discrimination laws. Why do you feel we need more laws?

    Did it ever dawn on you that just because I did not respond to everyone of your points, that it does not necessarily mean that I missed it. It simply means I did not feel the need to comment on it.

    Regarding “proof”. I never said we lived in a utopia the justice system was perfect, I said it is as it should be. And yes, by that I do mean that a claimant needs proof, not just strong accusations. Whether that proof is in the form of a memo or corroborating witnesses, the proof should be beyond a “reasonable doubt” or “preponderance of the evidence” depending on the case. It leads us to the age old question of what is worse: Imprisoning an innocent man or letting a criminal go free? Most agree it is worse to imprison the innocent man. If you have a better justice system devised, I am open to hear it. May I suggest that if you do have such a system you also write your congressman and so he/she can get to work on implementing it.

    P.S. I am not saying it has never happened because I don’t know, but I would really be interested in you identifying even one criminal case that you speak of where a suspect was executed based solely on one witness’ testimony. Executed without any established motive, without a shred of circumstantial evidence, without direct evidence without scientific evidence… Can you back up your statement with even just one example?

  • Joe

    Yes, I believe that it is government’s job to protect citizens from injustice. The alternative is a society where the stronger prey upon the weaker with impunity, or the weaker must rely on vigilanism for justice. Neither of these situatuions belong in a democracy. Nowhere in the Constitution do the words “principle of limited government” or “rugged individualism” exist. Most of the founding fathers were big into laws. Those that weren’t lost te debate.

    As for one innocent man being executed, Carlos DeLuna was put to death in December 1989 for a murder in Corpus Christi, TX, based on “eyewitness” testimony. The murder was actually committed by look-alike Carlos Hernandez. That’s one.

    According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 39 executions have been carried out in the face of compelling evidence of innocence or serious doubt about guilt from in the US from 1992 through 2004. Newly available DNA evidence prevented the pending execution of more than 15 death row inmates during the same period in the U.S. In nearly every case, an “eyewitness” identification was crucial to the prosecution’s case. Now these folks are not exactly impartial, but even if they were only right about 10% of the cases, that’s five innocent people wrongly killed.

  • Common Sense

    Joe: You are sadly (and I do mean sadly) mis-informed about the the Founding Fathers, if you think they were for a large government with many laws. They were extremely concerned about governments potential abuse of power and that is why they originally drafted the “Articles of Confederation” These Articles eventually proved to be to weak to hold the Union together so they drafted the constitution. A document they thought would make the government just strong enough but still limited in scope, hence the enumerated and finite powers. Try reading the Federalists papers if you have any doubt.
    You are a good “spinner”, but not good enough. When replying to me you said: “Nowhere in the Constitution do the words “principle of limited government” or “rugged individualism” exist.” That’s fine, but I never claimed those words were said in the constitution. Those words don’t need to be there, because it is evident from the content, what the fathers were trying to accomplish. I can not see how any reasonable, well informed person could honestly disagree with that sentiment. After all, the people that were drafting the constitution and our new government were doing so to escape the tyranny of an oppressive British Government. (This point is not even really debatable, it is just a basic fact).
    Nice try with Carlos Deluna example, but it did not meet our criteria. You claimed: “In a criminal case testimony from one witness is sufficient to put an accused person to death.” I asked you to provide me an example of a suspect that was “executed based solely on the testimony of a single witness. Executed without any established motive, without a shred of circumstantial evidence, without direct evidence without scientific evidence. ” The Deluna case you speak of had at least two corroborating witnesses and circumstantial evidence on top of that. (Did you really think I was just going to take you at your word for it and not check). I am guessing the other examples you gave where it was said that ‘”eyewitness identification was crucial to the prosecutions case” also have more evidence than a sole eye witness.
    With that being said, I will grant you that Deluna was most likely not guilty. Innocent men are from time to time executed. But the fact that this has ever happened speaks volumes to my point that, one should be considered innocent until proven guilty is as it should be. You bemoan our justice system. The system is admittedly flawed, but I am still waiting to get the feedback on your better system. The system that would seemingly be able to convict people and corporations as “guilty” without sufficient proof.

  • Joe

    Sorry, no time to waste discussing this if you keep moving the goalposts. Pat yourself on the back. You win. People who are bullied at work don’t deserve any real or efficient recourse.

  • Common Sense

    I really don’t know what goal post you think I have moved.
    Is it the goal post of “innocent until proven guilty”?Because the presumption of innocence been a goalpost established back in Roman times. It was adopted by the British and then the U.S..
    Is it the goalpost of limited government? Because that was established back in 1776.
    If anybody has been moving the goalpost it has been you and your ilk who want a larger government. People like you who “completely disagree” that the American government was not…designed to fix every little injustice in life.
    P.S. When admitting to losing an argument, it is uncouth to utter “you win” and then give some falsified reason as to why I won. The goalpost was solid. I won on the merits. A good loser would be more graceful.

  • Cancer

    Bullying of older workers is rampant at IRS, but no one has the courage to talk about it, for fear of retaliation. It’s amazing the difference between how the younger and older workers are treated, even by some of the older managers. The nightmares stay with you forever.

  • Bullied

    Cancer – yes, I think it WILL stay with me forever. That kind of abuse really took it’s toll emotionally and physically. Having said that though, the new boss seems fantastic. It’s obvious that she was told how things were and she’s made sure to try to make us as comfortable as possible. She has told us more than once that she appreciates our experience, hopes to learn the ropes from us long-termers,and things are going to be different than they were the last 8 years. So far so good. I can’t believe how much my outlook has changed. I no longer dread going to work and I actually feel energized doing my job again. Other staff have noticed a change in me that I didn’t even realize was happening. Bullies really can destroy the people under them – in every way possible. I’m sorry to hear that this is going on at the IRS – it seems bullying is rampant at a lot of government departments. How sad that is.

  • J

    I have to nake a conment about the 4 signs. I have encountered #1 from a lead programmer and a CIO. I was told how I didn’t know what I was talking about and didn’t understand this or that. I wan’t goin to tolerate that sort of treatment because a lot of this stemmed from a co-worker saying things about the work process that wasn’t true. Why I was blamed, I have no idea. Then I was told how I didn’t take initiative and needed to be hand held. I told them how I got 3 certifications last year and study new technology whenever I don’t have any work. Needless to say, I almost walked out of my job. Then this co-worker has gotten 4 co-workers fired in the past. Despite my telling our supervisors how she will not communicate pertinent information, she still keeps info to herself. She doesn’t want to relay any thing to me unless she is given the lead role on a project. It’s ridiculous. Now that the supervisor assigned a project to me, she took it and started telling me what to do, etc. Luckily, the boss told me to work w someone else to get the project done.
    So, I’m looking at #4 thinking how she stays in her office with her door shut, and she doesn’t communicate with anybody in the dept. doesn’t anyone see this a strange? She is known to tell the former supervisor everything that goes on and has almost got me fired in the past. So, she is basically digging her own hole, but I’ll be dammed if she pulls me down w her with all the work I’ve done. However, I’m still waiting for a raise and/or promotion. Maybe it’s time to look for something else…