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Workplace age discrimination can be ‘a beast’ to prove

Dear J.T. & Dale: After many years of coloring my hair, I decided I didn’t want to do it anymore. So I went to a stylist and had the color taken out and got it turned to a lovely shade of gray. I work at the front desk of a company, and when I showed up with my new hairstyle, I was surprised to see my boss wasn’t thrilled. A week later, I was moved off the front desk and into a cubicle. I think it may have something to do with my hair. Is this discrimination? – Victoria

J.T.: So it’s possible you are being discriminated against for the hair color; however, you didn’t lose your job. And as long as they didn’t lower your pay in any way, then there’s no discrimination impacting your earnings. They just moved your location. I guess you probably could pursue it and build a case, but I’m just not sure you would want to.

DALE: I’m sure you should not pursue it. As much as I, resident old guy, abhor age discrimination, it’s a beast to prove. Here’s a quote from an article in The Conversation (March 2020) by two sociology professors, Catherine Harnois of Wake Forest and Vincent Roscigno of Ohio State: “Along with a general reluctance to report their employers for unfair treatment, aging workers face notable obstacles when and if they do decide to move forward with legal action. Cases, for instance, rarely go to trial, and studies suggest that when they do, employers are twice as likely to win, given the difficulties victims face in proving their claims.” So, lousy odds. Then, there’s more: “… employers rarely, if ever, own up to their discriminatory actions when accused. Rather, they often point to alleged violations of company policy by the employee in question. Or, they couch their discriminatory actions as the result of smart and profitable decision-making, company downsizing or business restructuring.” Your management is never going to confess to age discrimination, and they might just go on a company-wide search to find fault with your work to justify the change. It could get lonelier in your cubicle.

J.T.: On the other hand, if it’s really important to you to sit at the front desk, then you may want to have a conversation with management about what it’s going to take to put you back. That way you could probably nail down whether or not it really does have to do with the hair color. A sticky situation for sure!

Dear J.T. & Dale: I’m getting married next year and want to take a three-week honeymoon. I have two weeks vacation time coming, but I was thinking about going to my employer and asking if I could make up for that third week by coming in on days when everyone is off, like holidays or Saturdays. Do you think that will work? – Trina

J.T.: I think you should ask, and when you do, make the case for all the things that you can do to minimize any problems that accrue when the office is closed. By showing the value of you working through those times it could be more incentive for them to agree to this.

DALE: And you’ll need to add to that pitch some detail on how your job will get done over those three weeks that you’re gone – how much you can do in advance and who has agreed to help when you’re out. Even so, I’m not optimistic. Why? Because you’re going to call to the lips of your HR department one of their red alert words, the dreaded “precedent.” Yes, if they do it for you, why not for the guy who dreams of a month-long hike or the couple who wants to do mission work in Guatemala? It’s easier for management to stonewall you than to have to sit in judgment, again and again. So, here’s your one hope: That having someone around when the office is closed will be a benefit to your company’s customers. Sell the idea as helping customers and you’ve got a shot.

Jeanine “J.T.” Tanner O’Donnell is a career coach and the founder of the career site Dale Dauten is founder of The Innovators’ Lab and author of a novel about HR, “The Weary Optimist.” Visit them at, where you can send questions via email, or write to them in care of King Features Syndicate, 628 Virginia Dr., Orlando, FL 32803.