How Old is Too Old?

Q. I have been given a very clear message. I have been at my company too long and it is believed someone more ”current” would be a better in my role. I built this department from nothing to a fully functioning, very successful group engulfed in current technology that receives positive feedback from customers. Interestingly enough, all my reviews have been very positive, with no mention of needing a change, or what needs to be “current.” I’ll see an attorney for sure, but what don’t employers get about long-term, older employees and what we have to offer? How old is too old?

A. Many employers do see the value of “mature“ workers; however, age discrimination is a reality. Retention and hiring of older workers remains a challenge. Employers may think they communicate subtly about the perceived need for change, but most often they don’t do a good job, and issues like yours end up with attorneys.

Your employer may have something specific in mind that it would like to see happen in your group, and your managers may believe they have communicated that interest. Perhaps a competitor has made significant headway in your area, and they now want a new strategy. Employers are often concerned about retaining the number two person in a department where there is no growth opportunity because of a long-term incumbent. Regardless, it is clear you did not see this coming. Perhaps they spoke with you some time ago about ”succession planning” or ”building a bench.” This work is needed at high performing organizations, but when it is directed at one person and not as a corporate initiative, employers put themselves at risk. When these discussions do not make it into reviews, additional risk for the employer develops, and the employee may not be aware of any issues.

Employers often want to make a change, but they do not want to suggest it is ”for cause.” They respect the contributions long-term employees have made, and are looking for a way out that works for all impacted. Most employers can see the risk of age discrimination in every conversation they have or in offering retirement planning benefits. It is when these conversations come as a shock to the employee as opposed to a longer term discussion taking place over many years, that employees look for attorneys.
In your case it may be too late for a conversation that allows for flexibility; a longer term transition allowing knowledge transfer, while developing a successor. Some professional services organizations have a mandatory retirement age, so the topic is more easily discussed. Some organizations provide very little planning for the person or the company while others provide financial wellness or financial preparation workshops. Some hope everyone picks an agreeable date, and it all just works out. That is not a strategic plan for an organization to plan for retirement or for employees assessing their financial ability or interest to retire.
Companies need to make this a conversation; talk to labor attorneys about how to have these conversations early. As an employee, start the planning process and discuss plans with a manager or HR without putting livelihood at risk.

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