05 December 2019

“OK, Boomer” and Other Ageist Language in the Workplace

“OK, Boomer.”  This two-word phrase has been included in memes and countless Twitter posts recently.  Along with “OK, Millennial,” it references a generational debate that has picked up steam in recent years, especially on social media.  These phrases often are used to belittle or dismiss a person’s thoughts or opinion based on the generation in which that person was born.  As they often do, this debate can leave the Wild West of social media and enter the workplace – or it can even occur on social media between employees.

While some may use these phrases in jest or a good-natured ribbing of their coworker, employers should be wary of allowing employees to use this language toward each other, both at work and online, because it can put an employer on the wrong end of an age discrimination lawsuit.  Under the law, it can be considered the same as calling someone a “geezer” or “old-timer” or telling someone it’s time to retire.

There are two primary risks that use of “OK, Boomer” and “OK, Millennial” can create for employers.  First, it can lead to a claim of a “hostile work environment,” which occurs when an employer tolerates a work environment where discriminatory statements or conduct are so prevalent or severe that an employee cannot do his or her job.  Second, it can lead to a claim of age discrimination when an employee is denied a promotion or pay raise, transferred to a new job, given a new schedule, disciplined, or fired, especially if the person making the decision was the one using the phrase.  And although federal law only protects employees over 40 from age discrimination, Michigan law protects all employees from age discrimination so Michigan employers should pay attention to ageist comments made to younger employees too.

So what should employers do if they hear or see one of these phrases directed at an employee?  They should treat these types comments just like they would any other discriminatory comments, even when they’re used as jokes.  They should advise all employees, including management, that these types of statement prohibited at work and toward coworkers.  They should have a policy in place where employees can report discrimination or harassment, investigate those complaints thoroughly, and take appropriate action to make the statements or conduct stop – including firing employees when appropriate.  Employers should also train managers not to listen for and immediately take steps to stop the conduct or statements, again including termination if appropriate.  Finally, it is always a good idea to consult your employment attorney throughout each step in this process.

If you have any questions on how to handle age related phrases being used in your workplace, please contact your Miller Johnson Employement & Labor attorney.