Older workers face different type of harassment

Posted Aug. 15, 2010, at 11:01 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — An ongoing study of older Mainers in the workplace is finding a different type of harassment, the isolation and resentment of older workers by younger workers.

“The clearest trend that I have noticed is this issue of isolation or feeling demeaned or left out,” University of Maine sociology professor Amy Blackstone said recently. “It does seem to be unique to older workers.”

She said the harassment is very different from that experienced by young and middle-aged workers, which principally is sexual in nature. She also has done research in that area of the workplace.

“They were not having the kinds of experience we usually think of when we think of harassment,” Blackstone said, “like being asked out on a date or being hit on, or touched inappropriately.”

She said many respondents expressed a sense of being “devalued” by their younger co-workers and that their life experience was not considered important to the other workers.

“I am trying not to draw sweeping generalizations because this is an ongoing study,” she said, “but I am seeing some clear differences between older workers in the workplace and other workers.”

The study used a sample drawn from clients of the National Able Network that helps seniors find work across the country and has its Maine office in Bangor. Blackstone said the sample, while geographically diverse, may not be as representative of all seniors as she would like.

“When I presented this to the [Maine] Jobs Council it was pointed out to me that many of the people in this program may not be able to afford to complain and quit and look for another job,” she said. “That’s why this is an ongoing study that I want to expand.”

Blackstone said she was surprised and pleased at the number of respondents who went beyond the survey to write comments on the survey form. Sometimes the comments told more than the survey question asked, such as the woman who wrote “the young girls thought I should be home waiting to die” when describing what it was like in her workplace.

“I really would like to do interviews of another sample of older workers to get that sort of information you usually don’t get in a survey,” she said. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation and Blackstone hopes to get a further grant to continue the study to answer some of the questions raised in this survey.

“One of the things in the professor’s report that struck me was the lack of respect for older workers,” Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman said last week.

She said an ongoing issue has been respect of all workers in a workplace and that several programs have aimed at working with employers to assure a good workplace environment. She said it is a “best practice” for employers and not something that can be legislated.

“It’s really an issue of training and education,” she said. “The workplace should be safe and welcoming to all employees.”

Fortman said her message to all employers is that they should do all they can to encourage basic respect of all of the differences among workers regardless of age, gender, race or any other characteristic.

She said there are several programs at her agency, principally in the Career Centers, which are aimed at dispelling what she described as the “myths” of older workers.

“There are myths about the work ethic of older employees and about their adaptability to technology,” Fortman said. “We try to show that the concerns raised by some employers are not so.”

Attorney General Janet Mills said her office gets few complaints about the workplace from older workers, and those are referred to the Maine Human Rights Commission. She said older workers are protected under federal and state laws from being discriminated against by employers because of their age and the laws are enforced.

“The more prevalent complaint that we hear about is older workers being laid off just short of their retirement,” she said. “That is the complaint we most hear about that has to do with age discrimination.”

Mills said she is concerned about workers being harassed in any form and at any age, but said the laws dealing with age discrimination are focused more on protecting benefits the workers have built up in a job than difficult-to-define harassment in the workplace.

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