Our over-lawyered employment world is so heavily regulated that an employer can get in trouble for failing to act when a millennial uses the relatively mild insult “OK, Boomer” to respond to an older co-worker.
Some millennials apparently don’t know boomers were born between 1946 and 1964, meaning someone between the ages of 73 and 55; however, some millennials are using the expression with anybody who is older than they are.
“OK, boomer” is clearly an age-related insult, so if you learn that it’s been said in the workplace, then you need to at least have a talk with the employee and let him know that comments like this are inappropriate. Also, document the fact that you did it, even if you think a formal counseling would be overkill.
Another possibility is that the millennial was provoked. Yes, it could happen! The boomer may have been ranting about how poorly educated, spoiled and unmotivated millennials may be. The most civil retort the millennial could come up with in the heat of the moment was “OK, boomer.” In that case, come down harder on the boomer, even though the millennial is not in the protected age group and may still need to be counseled about making age-related comments in the workplace.
The federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act protects people who are 40 and older. It does not prohibit age discrimination against those under 40. Regardless of the law, it should be against company policy for anybody to make disparaging remarks about age. Any age. And that should be part of your annual respectful workplace training.
Common Sense Counsel: Remember three rules about “over the hill” birthday parties, which can also apply to friendly, age-based kidding in the workplace. These rules apply only to good-natured teasing, not the cruel kind:
No. 1: Consider your audience.
Some people are sensitive about their age, and some are not. Sensitivity about age is not necessarily correlated with actual age. If you must tease or make friendly jokes about age, do it only with the employees who have demonstrated that they are OK with it. (And don’t assume they think it’s OK just because they’ve never complained.)
No. 2: Consider the work environment.
If your department is full of 60-year-olds who are teasing a 59-year-old about his age, then you may not have much to worry about. On the other hand, if the teasers are younger than the 59-year-old, the teasing is much more likely to be viewed as offensive. And especially watch out for paper trails of age-discrimination evidence such as boomer- offensive cards, hemorrhoid creams, canes, false teeth, etc., to which the recipient clings tightly when the 60 candles are blown out! What is OK for Uncle Steve is not OK for office boomers.
No. 3: Generally, the older one gets, the less funny age-based teasing becomes.
Calling a co-worker “old” when he or she turns 40 may be funny as long as he or she isn’t a model, athlete or TV anchorperson. It becomes less funny when they hits 50, and not remotely funny from about age 55 on. (Note: Rule 3 should always be applied in conjunction with Rules 1 and 2.)