Johnny C. Taylor Jr.

Special to USA TODAY

Published 7:00 AM EDT Sep 24, 2019

Johnny C. Taylor Jr., a human resources expert, is tackling your questions as part of a series for USA TODAY. Taylor is president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, the world’s largest HR professional society.

The questions are submitted by readers, and Taylor’s answers below have been edited for length and clarity.

Have a question? Do you have an HR or work-related question you’d like me to answer? Submit it here.

Question: I am an older worker, and my boss has been attributing what he deems my shortcomings to my age. He has told me he believes I have early-stage dementia. He gets upset when I don’t react to his insults and tantrums. He threw a set of keys at me, and although they didn’t hit me, he dented my desk and broke the key tag. I need to work, but finding a full-time job has been extremely difficult. What can I do, and how do I talk to HR about this? Can he be fired? Do I have an ageism suit on my hands? – Anonymous

Johnny C. Taylor Jr.: I first want to say how personally and professionally disturbed I am by the conduct you describe. No one should be subjected to such appalling treatment at work – or anywhere, for that matter.

Attributing perceived job performance issues to your age, lobbing age-related insults at you, and having tantrums appear to fit within the framework of workplace harassment. Further, his allegation that you have dementia was demeaning, and throwing a set of keys at you with enough force to dent your desk was, at the very least, threatening.

And while this behavior has no place at work, additional information may be needed to assess if the behavior meets the standards of age discrimination.

Age discrimination, or “ageism” as you refer, involves treating an employee 40 or older less favorably because of his or her age. Age-related harassment includes offensive or derogatory comments, jokes or other actions that may be threatening or demeaning. On the other hand, workplace harassment includes conduct that is severe, pervasive or both; results in unreasonable interference with the individual’s job performance; and creates an offensive, intimidating, “hostile” work environment. None of which are age-related. 

Either way, your employer can’t address or stop harassing behaviors if they don’t know about them. So, first and foremost, meet with a member of the HR department to discuss your manager’s conduct. Prior to this conversation, do your homework by documenting all interactions of concerning and offensive behavior. This essentially helps you build your case.

When you meet with HR, describe the harassing behaviors, when and how often the harassment occurred, and the names of others who witnessed or may also have been targets of his conduct. Finally, ask HR to discuss the investigation process and how you’ll be protected against retaliation for coming forward with a complaint.

HR’s role at this point is to conduct a fair and thorough investigation, looking at both sides of the story. Your boss may, in fact, be fired if your employer determines there is enough evidence to warrant it.

In the interim though, focus on continuing to perform the essential duties and functions of your job and display a professional attitude.

Harassment is never OK under any circumstances, but employers and society as a whole must do more to stop age discrimination in its tracks. It’s never OK to think less of someone for being older – or younger for that matter. It’s demeaning and just wrong. Older workers are invaluable to our talent pipeline and should not be overlooked or disrespected.

Q: I’ve dealt with depression my entire life, although lately it’s been worse. I’m anxious that it’s affecting my performance at work, but I’m uncomfortable talking to my manager. Can I be fired for being depressed? What should I do?  – Anonymous

Taylor: The short answer is no. You cannot be fired for being depressed, but you could be fired due to your performance. It sounds like it’s time to get the help you need.

If you have not yet consulted a mental health professional, it could be a great first step to getting yourself, and your work, back on track.

Do you know if your employer offers an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)? More than 90% of companies provide them, and they are designed to give you access to these professionals at a lower cost or at no cost in some cases.

EAPs cover a wide range of issues, and depression certainly falls within those parameters. Working through your EAP can be done very discreetly. Not even your supervisor has to know if you so choose.

Hopefully, speaking with a professional will help you improve your depression, resolve your productivity issues and limitations at work, and if needed, serve as documentation to explain your performance issues while also demonstrating your commitment to fixing them.

Employers know there’s a blurred line between work and home life, and often when one is going poorly, it can directly impact the other. Depression currently affects more than 17 million Americans, so you are far from alone. And as you might imagine, the utilization of employer-provided EAPs is at an all-time high.

It is worth noting that depression can be considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 when it “substantially limits one or more major life activities,” such as thinking, working, speaking or sleeping. If yours falls within this definition, you would be entitled to request a reasonable accommodation, which requires a discussion about arrangements that might work for both you and your employer.

Depression is complicated, but I hope you come out the other side of this happier and healthier, not only for the sake of your professional life but for your personal life as well.


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