Lessons from Google's $11 Million Age Discrimination Case


Lessons from Googles $11 Million Age Discrimination Case

In July 2019, Google agreed to pay $11 million to end a class action lawsuit brought on by 227 individuals who accused the company of age discrimination against job applicants who were over the age of 40. The settlement also requires parent company Alphabet Inc. to train employees and managers about age bias, create a committee on age diversity in recruiting, and ensure that age-related complaints are adequately investigated.

The Silicon Valley of California, known for its heavy population of tech companies, is certainly no stranger to age discrimination claims. Research into the top tech companies, conducted by PayScale, revealed that the median age of employees at industry giants (Facebook, LinkedIn, and SpaceX) is just 29, with only three (IBM, Oracle, and HP) having a median employee age over 33.

These figures are especially troubling in light of the fact that by 2022, nearly 35 percent of the workforce will be 50 or older. A recent national survey conducted by AARP of adults over age 45 revealed that “61% of respondents said they have either seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace and 38% of those believe the practice is very common.”

Overview of the Case That Led to the Settlement

The lead plaintiff in the Google class action case, software engineer Cheryl Fillekes, was interviewed by Google four times between the years 2007-2014, beginning when she was 47 years old. Despite being highly qualified for the position for which she interviewed and having years of applicable experience, Fillekes was never offered the job. She filed a suit accusing the company of “a systematic pattern and practice of discriminating” against older applicants.

Google denied the allegations, saying that despite the fact that staff interviewers found Fillekes and other applicants involved in the suit to be “Googley” enough to be a good fit, the applicants lacked the technical aptitude the positions required. They further argued that they have strong policies in place which prohibit age discrimination.

Laws Addressing Age Discrimination

Age discrimination—treating an employee or applicant less favorably because of their age (40 or older)—is prohibited under both California state and federal laws. Though the laws are similar in structure, they differ in their scope of protection.

Regarding California’s law, the state’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) enforces state laws that make it illegal to discriminate, harass, or retaliate against a job applicant or employee based on protected characteristics, including an individual’s age. The law applies to public and private employers, labor organizations, and employment agencies with five or more employees.

Prohibited behavior applies to all business practices, including but not limited to hiring practices (advertisements, screening, and interviews), training and apprenticeship programs, promotions, terminations, and working conditions (including compensation).

Likewise, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), which prohibits age discrimination at the federal level. Although the law’s prohibitions mirror those at the state level, the scope is somewhat different. Under the ADEA, covered employers include private employers with 20 or more employees, state and local governments, employment agencies, labor organizations, and the federal government.

The Importance of Prevention

Age discrimination persists throughout the employment context, not just in the tech industry, and it will continue to be a serious issue in the coming years. As people live longer, they work longer in order to support themselves and their loved ones. They also need to save more for what could be a longer retirement phase of their lives. AARP reports that “older workers said they will work to stay mentally active (91% very or somewhat important) and for extra money to buy the things they want (87%).”

There are steps that businesses can take in order to prevent age discrimination and the costly consequences that can follow. Some best practices include:

  • Reviewing job ads for discriminatory language such as “looking for young, energetic worker.”
  • Implementing and enforcing clear anti-discrimination policies and practices. Disseminate the policies through regular communication with employees, such as an employee handbook, annual memo, and training.
  • Auditing hiring practices to ensure that applicants are assessed based on their skills in relation to the job needs and never on characteristics such as age.
  • Fostering a multi-generational environment. For example, an employer could encourage mentorship whereby older and younger employees collaborate and share their varied experiences and knowledge from their roles.
  • Training hiring personnel about age discrimination and how to prevent its occurrence. Quality training should function to educate as well as reinforce anti-discrimination policies and procedures.

The consequences of an age discrimination claim can be devastating to a business and may include costly settlements, damages, and attorney fees. Furthermore, an organization may be missing out on a valuable asset by passing on an employee over the age of 40 who brings years of experience and knowledge to the table. That's why it's important to take proactive steps and invest in high-quality training in order to prevent age discrimination in your workplace. 

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