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Work & Purpose

The Most Insidious Form of Age Discrimination at Work

The 'I'm Not Done' author on the demoralizing practice of marginalization


About 10 years ago, my boss, mentor and close friend Angelina — who was then in her early 50s — lost her job at our well-known and respected Fortune 50 manufacturing company after working her way up to the executive suite. In the year before, I had noticed some subtle and troubling things about how she was being treated.

I would attend a meeting and discover Angelina hadn’t been invited. She was also asked to take on assignments well beneath her skill and talent level. Something didn’t add up.

When I asked the CEO about this, he said, “Listen, Angelina has been in this business a long time. Maybe she’s just tired, that’s all.” Angelina was anything but tired. That’s when I knew two things for sure: tired is an ageist code word for old and marginalizing someone is an effective way to get them to choose to leave, taking the employer off the hook.

“It was almost like my seniority and experience was a negative to my boss.”

My neither tired nor old mentor opted to leave the company and went on to do great things elsewhere.

Why Marginalization at Work Is Insidious and Demoralizing

Marginalization at work is a clear indicator of ageism. In fact, it’s the most insidious form. And it’s demoralizing.

The original meaning of the verb “to marginalize” comes from editing. The editor would write notes off to the side of the document, usually in tiny and practically unreadable print. In today’s workplace, when an older worker is marginalized, they too are often moved to the side in a position that feels unimportant. Like the notes in the manuscript, they’re often made to feel tiny.

When I wrote my book, I’m Not Done: It’s Time to Talk About Ageism in the Workplace, I interviewed dozens of people in their 50s and 60s who had been pushed out or fired from their jobs. Not one of them had ever received a bad performance review. So, in addition to being upset, they were also mystified.

As one man told me, “It was almost like my seniority and experience was a negative to my boss, so he stopped including me in meetings about the agency’s future strategy. But what he didn’t know was that I had a coffee date almost every morning with young employees who wanted to pick my brain.”

He was terminated during a “restructuring.” Those young people are still calling him for advice.

Marginalization and Age Discrimination

I think most of us understand that age discrimination is against the law, but we also need to understand that evidence of marginalization is often used to prove that the age discrimination existed. It’s believed that a lot of companies use marginalization to get older workers to leave, allowing the companies to avoid paying severance,

Sue Ellen Eisenberg, an attorney with her own firm in Detroit, has taken on dozens of age discrimination cases and she knows marginalization is often a factor.

"I'm Not Done" book

“All of sudden, once-valued employees feel less valued. They are forced into a role that no longer utilizes their strengths, they are literally and figuratively being muted and it can become a self-defeating cycle because the natural reaction is to doubt yourself,” says Eisenberg.

In reality, she adds, “nothing has changed about your abilities as much as the organization’s natural inclination to gravitate towards the next shiny thing. And once that starts to happen to someone, it can really wear them down, so this idea of leaving starts to sound like a plausible idea.”

But even when marginalization doesn’t lead to losing your job, it is hurtful and unpleasant.

How Marginalization Can Affect Your Health

What’s more, marginalization has been proven to have damaging effects on emotional, mental and physical health.

When people feel excluded at their workplace, they often describe feelings of anger, fear, depression, anxiety, sadness and stress. As a result, they become even more isolated from their colleagues. Not exactly a formula for top performance.

This then can lead to a vicious cycle. When an employee is relegated to the margin, they simply will not be as well-informed so if they do get a chance to participate, their contribution might not be as sharp as in the past. Self-doubt creeps in and, unwittingly, the employee proves the employer’s “Suzy isn’t as good as she used to be” bias. That can then devolve into a performance review that could “justify” Suzy’s termination.

What to Do If It Happens to You

So, what can you do if you think you’re being marginalized at work?

Keep learning. Keep sharing your expertise and experience. Keep volunteering for new challenges.

If you do those things and the marginalization continues, speak up to your boss or to HR or both.  Keep notes of those conversations.

Then, if nothing changes, consider calling an age discrimination attorney.

Above all, don’t let the marginalizing behavior erode your confidence.  Remind yourself it’s not you, it’s them. Wear your wisdom and experience like the badge of honor it is.

Patti Temple Rocks
By Patti Temple Rocks
Patti Temple Rocks, author of I'm Not Done, has held senior leadership positions in three sectors of the communications industry: PR, advertising and on the corporate side. She is passionate about fighting age discrimination and helping people understand how it harms individuals, businesses and society as a whole.

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