ADEA: An Employer’s Guide to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act

Under United States federal law, employers are subject to the provisions and requirements of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). It is important for employers, human resources professionals and managers to understand what the ADEA is, who it protects, what protections it provides and how it impacts the workplace. This article defines and explores the provisions and protections of the ADEA and answers frequently asked questions about it.


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What is the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)?

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) is a United States federal labor law enacted by Congress in 1967 and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson that encourages the employment of older workers and protects their civil rights by preventing age discrimination in the workplace. The purpose of the ADEA is to encourage employers to make employment decisions based on an individual’s abilities rather than their age and to prohibit employers from using unfounded assumptions, biases and stereotypes about how age impacts an individual’s ability when making those decisions.

Related: ERISA: A Primer for Team Leaders


Provisions and protections of the ADEA

The ADEA features several provisions and requirements to protect workers from age discrimination in the workplace. The following sections summarize the ADEA’s provisions and the protections they provide:


Defining age discrimination

The purpose of all provisions and requirements in the ADEA are to protect candidates and employees 40 years of age or older from age discrimination in the workplace. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines age discrimination as treating an applicant or employee less favorably because of their age and notes that discrimination can occur even when the victim and the person responsible for inflicting the discrimination are both over the age of 40. However, the ADEA does not prohibit an employer from favoring an older worker over a younger one, even if both workers are over the age of 40.

Related: Five Tips for Stimulating Millennial’s Work Ethic


Work situations the ADEA applies to

All provisions and requirements of the ADEA protect candidates and employees from age discrimination in any aspect of employment. Such situations include employment decisions related to:

  • Hiring and firing
  • Promotions
  • Layoffs
  • Compensation
  • Training
  • Benefits
  • Work assignments

The ADEA also includes a clause that allows the EEOC to extend its provisions and requirements and the protections they provide to "any terms, conditions or privileges of employment."


The ADEA and harassment

The ADEA includes provisions to protect workers from harassment based on their age. Such harassment may include offensive or derogatory remarks about a person’s age. According to the EEOC, the law does not prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments or non-serious isolated incidents. However, such teasing, comments or incidents become harassment when they:

  • Occur so frequently or severely that they create a hostile or offensive work environment, or
  • Result in adverse employment decisions such as the victim being fired or demoted

Under the ADEA’s guidelines, the harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, another supervisor or leader within the organization, a coworker and even a non-employee such as clients or customers.


The ADEA and employment policies and practices

The ADEA’s provisions require an employer to ensure all of their employment policies and practices comply with the ADEA’s requirements. Employment policies and practices that apply to everyone, regardless of age, violate the ADEA’s requirements if they:

  • Have a negative impact on candidates or employees 40 years of age or older, and
  • The employer cannot base it on a reasonable factor other than age (RFOA)

The EEOC defines a reasonable factor other than age as factors that are objectively reasonable when considered from the view of a reasonable employer under like circumstances. They also note that the determination of such factors depends on the facts and circumstances of each individual situation.


ADEA frequently asked questions

Here are the answers to a few frequently asked questions about the Age Discrimination in Employment Act:


Who does the ADEA cover?

The ADEA protects employees and applicants 40 years of age or older who work in either the private or public sector. The provisions and requirements of the ADEA apply to businesses with 20 or more employees. While the ADEA does not protect workers under the age of 40, some states have enacted their own laws to extend age discrimination protections to younger workers.


How has the ADEA changed over time?

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) was originally responsible for enforcing the ADEA until the Carter Administration transferred enforcement to the EEOC in January 1979. Since its original enactment in 1967, Congress has added several amendments to the ADEA to extend its scope and coverage. These amendments include:

  • Covered age: In 1978, Congress added an amendment to extend the ADEA’s protections to workers up to 70 years of age, replacing the act’s initial upper age limit of 65. They then removed the upper age limit eligible for protection under the act altogether with an additional amendment in 1986.
  • Releases of age discrimination claims: Congress enacted the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act of 1990 (OWBPA) in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Public Employees Retirement System of Ohio v. Betts to amend the ADEA by establishing new criteria by which a release of an ADEA violation claim is "knowing and voluntary."
  • Statute of limitations: In 2009, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act expanded the statute of limitations for taking legal action against an employer or reporting a claim to the EEOC for allegations of employment discrimination. Under this act, the statute of limitations resets with every new occurrence of discrimination.


How common is age discrimination in the workplace?

According to the EEOC’s June 2018 report "The State of Age Discrimination and Older Workers in the U.S. 50 Years After the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)," age discrimination in the workplace is still a significant problem for workers, their families and the economy. The report states that six out of 10 older workers report having seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace, with 90% of those workers saying age discrimination is common in the workplace.


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