Human Resources 101: Age-related questions answered

Q. I was with a company for over 20 years, and after a merger, I was let go. I relocated to this area and am currently looking for employment. I am getting interviews with many companies, but don’t seem to be getting any offers. I am in my mid-50s and I’m sure I’m up against younger, fresher talent, but I know I am more qualified. What is age discrimination?

A. Age discrimination is defined in the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. It prohibits employment discrimination of people who are 40 years old or older, and also forbids mandatory retirement based on age (with certain exceptions based on the type of job it is, like airline pilots).

The Act only applies to employers with 20 or more employees and unions with 25 or more members. If you feel you are being discriminated against in employment solely because of your age, you have legal recourse, including a jury trial. However, this type of discrimination can be difficult to prove, because you would have to show that in every other way, you were as equally qualified as the person who was ultimately hired, except for the difference in your ages.

Q. As a small/medium sized employer in Northern Michigan, what do my employees expect in the way of retirement planning? My company is too small to offer a pension budget-wise, but I know the importance for people to have a retirement incentive. What do you suggest?

A. The easiest and most cost-effective retirement plan you can offer your employees is a 401(k) plan. This allows employees to save pre-tax dollars into an account that allows them to control how and where their money is invested. Most 401(k) plans have many different options for how employees can invest their money, depending on their comfort level with risk. You can set up a 401(k) plan quite easily through a bank, investment firm or insurance agent. You can also decide if you want to provide even more incentive for your employees to save by offering to match a percentage of what they put into the account.

The only caveat to this is, regardless of your corporate structure, you are limited as to how much you can invest in your own personal retirement plan by the amount you designate to match in your employees’ 401(k). Your 401(k) plan administrator can advise you on your options.

Q. I have an employee who’s been with me for over 30 years. As time has gone on and she is reaching retirement age, I have noticed the quality of her work to be slipping substantially. I trust her and have enjoyed working with her all these years, but I also need to think about the future. What direction should I go?

A. What you describe really should be considered a performance issue, rather than an age issue. The best approach would be to meet with the employee and describe for her the problems you’ve been noticing. Be as specific as possible, giving examples of the declining quality of her work. Allow her an opportunity to explain why her performance has been worsening. It could be for any number of reasons, and depending on the reason, you may be able to assist her with suggestions on what she might do differently.

If she tells you that her performance is slipping because she feels unable to keep up as she gets older, you might suggest developing a staged, gradual reduction in her workload and work hours, and have her help you with hiring someone to replace her who could gradually assume the responsibilities of her role.

Professional Solutions Plus specializes in employee leasing and medical billing services for small to medium businesses in northern Michigan. If you have a general employment question you would like answered in this column, contact Liz Sayre-King at 935.0411.