Thursday, March 6, 2014

Age discrimination, and how to fight it

From the inbox, an interesting comment by PQ about being older, and how they're treated by management:
I work for a chemical company in a support function.  I was in graduate school in the 1980s, and so have been in the workforce for about 25 years.  I’ve been in my current position for some time, and it is one that has traditionally been filled by a mix of Ph.D. and M.S. chemists, usually mid-to-late career.  However, as budgets have gotten leaner over the years, the positions in our department have been filled more and more with B.S. chemists, and ones who are earlier in their careers.  I estimate that their salaries are about ½ to ¾ of mine.

Several years ago, I noticed a trend of the newer persons being given the better assignments, with more responsibilities and more visibility, compared to those of us with more years of service.  The net effect of this trend is that we older workers have become marginalized, along with ending up doing more routine work.

Now, our division managers justify all this by saying that the newer people need to have opportunities, so they can ‘shine’ and advance in their careers. Some of these individuals certainly do rise to the occasion, while others really stumble along.  Sometimes they will surreptitiously ask one of us more experienced individuals for help, and we give it, though we won’t get any credit for these contributions. 

My take on all this is that we older workers are being positioned to be the next in line to be laid off, if layoffs come down the pike.  We don’t appear to be important contributors anymore; with the work we do so routine, anyone could do it.  However, I don’t share these thoughts with my older coworkers, because they are so in awe of the management that I don’t think they would believe me.

So, my response to all this is to look for opportunities in which I can get some visibility and find more interesting projects to work on.  Asking my management for such work is useless; they’ve already decided to favor the younger workers.

Trying to impress my managers by working harder is also fruitless; I’ve watched my coworkers try to do so, with limited results.  Instead, I’ve taken to heart some advice an older relative once gave me: You don’t have to impress your manager.  You have to impress the people that your manager is impressed with.

So true.  And the persons who impress my management are the managers and senior scientists in the departments for which we provide our support services.  For the past several years, I have made a concerted effort to interact with these groups when it appears feasible, by asking to attend meetings and volunteering to aid them in their work.  If they ask me for input on their programs, I always do somewhat more than what they’ve asked for.  I also advise them on additional things that I can do for them, with emphasis on my areas of expertise, distinct from those of my coworkers, young and old.  If I go to one of their meetings, I try to ask at least one question, with the aim to show that I’m interested in their program goals.

To further all this, I’ve also volunteered to give two talks to these other departments on the type of work that I and my coworkers do.  I’ve made certain to put everything in terms that the attendees can easily understand and relate to.  I emphasize how the services we provide help them to meet their business goals, and most of all meet the needs of our company’s external customers.  To placate my own managers, I talk about all the different services my department provides, just so I look like the proverbial ‘team player’.

I’d say these multi-year efforts have been about 25% successful, and that 25% has made a big difference.  I feel more in tune with what’s going on in our company, rather than sitting on the sidelines.  And it gives me somewhat more control over my work, rather than having to be so passive (which isn’t my nature).  My direct management seems to be of two minds about all this; they don’t appear to care for my greater visibility, but they do like that our department gets a cut of this visibility, so they’re not entirely negative about all this.

Now, I’m not striving to get any promotions out of these efforts.  This is simply a job-preservation project, and so far it’s worked.  As my friend Nancy, a sales rep at a wallpaper company, has told me “People our age work for three things.  We work to pay the mortgage, to save for retirement, and to have health insurance.” So true.

Thanks to PQ for writing this food for thought. - CJ


  1. I don't think it's and secret that older workers get pushed out of lab positions. I don't think chemistry is unlike other fields like accounting, law, academia, even the military (my understanding, at least for officers, is that if you're not promoted past Major in 3 tries you're out) in that it's "up or out". I can't speak to big pharma, but I've seen very little grey hair in any labs at any biotech (and I have seen a good # of these). To be clear, as I'm....let's say closer to 'a certain age' than I was....this was a major concern when i worked in the lab.

    IMO, I think the best way to improve job security is to make the jump to management. You'll still have people looking to rid of you for increasingly petty reasons, but the pay's better (maybe even negotiated severance package) and you very rarely get holes in your jeans halfway between the knees and your hips...

  2. Jump to lab management, or color your hair and get a facelift.

    I work in an academic environment and have started to take classes and out of curiosity have looked at evaluations of teachers I have had or know about. What I have seen is that the older teachers seemed to get slammed more than the younger ones, in general. Sure, every teacher is different, but I suspect if you are young and attractive you will get better evaluations in general, compared to a fat and grey haired (or bald) guy, for the same teaching skills.

    And that's one reason why I am vegetarian, going on vegan. I got skinny when I went on this diet, and I figure it might help me last longer in the workforce as an academic bench worker.

    1. Perceptions of others have a lot to do with looks, so you're on the right trick. But if you're tall, you can probably skip the diet and even still be bald (as long as you shave your head) and you will still be ahead of shorties. And besides, didn't you say that you had a crappily paid academic researcher job? It doesn't sound like much to fight for...

      Better become good looking and start your own restaurant instead.

  3. How do you jump to lab management if you don't have a PhD? Is there anyway to chip through the glass ceiling? Or are non-PhD chemists just doomed to unemployment?

    1. 1. Good question, difficult problem.
      2. Yes, but it can be difficult. Easier at smaller firms.
      3. Not really.

    2. biotecthtoreadorMarch 7, 2014 at 8:54 AM

      "How do you jump to lab management if you don't have a PhD?"

      You don't. Move to business development or something non-directly-science related. In, literally, hundreds of biotechs I've looked at I have never met a director or VP in R&D who did not have a PhD. Can't speak to big pharmers.

  4. I am in my late 50's and am very worried about the future.

    I my last employer was a pharma startup. When I joined I was employee #7... And although I only have a masters I was promoted to manager and then an Associate Director in R&D. That was great ... until I (and almost everybody else) got laid off after an adverse FDA decision...

    I was out of work a LONG time until I got hired by a very 'unsual' company to do lab work, which has largely become routine.

    Going back to the lab full-time was not where I wanted to be at this stage of my career, but was heck of a lot better than being unemployed!

    When this job ends, getting back into management now, without a PhD is VERY unlikely. Prospects for a decent paying (or any) lab job (outside of temp work) at my age and with my resume is just about as grim.

    So I just try and take things 1 day at a time and saving as much as I possibly can.

    1. Want to talk more on this topic? Email me at chemjobber -at- gmail/dot/com. Confidentiality guaranteed.

    2. I work in R&D at a mid-sized global spec chem company. I've had four managers in my time here, and only one of them possessed a PhD. I personally know several other line managers at other chemical companies that do not have doctorates. My former director just took another position. He has an MS. My college roommate also has an MS, and is a director at a pharmaceutical lab. So, at least in my personal experience, making it to mid-management or upper mid-management without a doctorate is certainly possible. We also have several current staff Scientists (highest level on our technical ladder) who do not have PhDs. I'm not convinced the picture is as bleak as it's being painted here.

  5. What I would like to know is the ratio of PhD (or not PhD) chemists who are still in the industry (whether it be bench workers or management) at 50, 55 , 60 ,65 rears old, divided by the total numbers who started in the industry. In other words what fraction have meaningful employment until they want to retire?

    Is being forced out almost inevitable by the odds, or are we just paranoid?

    Seeing as I am a academic bench worker at 50 I know Im likely to be toast soon enough.....

  6. This is PQ here, with a few thoughts:

    Back when I started working in the chemical industry about 30 years ago or so, it was routine for chemists to work till 65; some even worked beyond this. I'd say that the grand majority of these individuals were productive as well, though there was a minority who just coasted to retirement.

    But nowadays where I am, a chemist is lucky to stay on the job until age 60, due to any number of factors - mainly layoffs or being encouraged (pushed) to take early retirement. So different from before.

    On the topic of face lifts and hair coloring - I've thought about both, though I don't think it would really matter that much, since the company already knows my age. Though there is something to this - I do think it's important to stay healthy, and to be able to keep up for the most part with younger coworkers. In the same vein, I never talk about any health-related issues at work that could be construed as age-related. Like, I don't ever complain about my joints aching, or that my cholesterol is too high (Yikes!). Plus, I prefer my privacy, anyway.

  7. The irony is that all the people the "younger" managers etc. are going to go through the exact same agism as the people have mentioned in this thread. They all probably thing they'll be young forever. It reminds me of a friend of mine who actually did a MBA course and "de-aged" himself by 3 years, lol.

  8. Ageism occurs to young as well. I worked for a large pharma. About half a dozen new BS/MS chemists were hired in cluster. How many were still employed after 4 years? Zero. The age group which had anti-discrimination laws on its side faired much, much better.

  9. I worked in a lab where this 59 year old worker was making life hard for everyone.
    There was obvious age discrimination there, but just seeing how she handled it made me cringe and think more than twice about staying with this industry.
    She did the minimum amount of work while giving lengthy replies to her supervisors about how she work assigned to her was unfair/too complicated, how leave taken by younger colleagues were affecting productivity, push her responsibilities to the others (including technicians) and basically announce everyday that she would quit anytime soon.

    This and taking all 28 days of vacation leave. a three month bonus. The younger workers averaged 8 days.

    To all older workers:
    - Be as difficult as you can if management are pushovers.
    - Restrict output, or pass it on to the younger workers which the company hold so dearly.
    - Protest with great fervency on any piece of work assigned.
    - Cry when things don't go your way at staff meetings. Practise. It's great for turning the tables around.

    1. Paid leave is part and parcel to any compensation package. That younger workers (and Americans in general) don't take full advantage of their PTO and scorn others for doing so is a cultural phenomenon I will never understand.

      Working in the Fed GOV, I've seen employees along the same lines as this post (retired on duty), but I would say the solution to this problem is with management. It is management's responsibility to cut through the BS, and document an employee's performance and dole out darts and laurels as appropriate. With enough persistence and proper documentation, eventually one of those darts will pop such a person's bubble. However, most managers I've observed are too busy trying to support their good team members to adequately make such documentation.

  10. Company where I have worked for years was sold first of year. Existing employees were told at announcement they would be treated very fairly. Then informed that account department was in another state, no jobs available for us and given an end date of employment. Next informed there were a few placements we could interview for which we all did and all give placements except two which was myself and a lady with complicated pregnancy only, we were given another end date. I have since applied for four additional positions with the company and not even given a chance to interview positions were filled with younger and less experienced women. Since that time I have found out they are slowing weeding out the 40+ employees.
    If they are not breaking the law they are certainly bending it.