“OK Boomer” is having a moment on the internet, appearing often in viral jokes and memes. It is widely considered an all-purpose retort by the younger generations of Millennials and Gen Z’ers to dismiss thoughts and ideas they view as too old-fashioned. Some even use “OK Boomer” to discount opinions stereotypically attributed to the Baby Boomer generation.
For their part, Millennials suffered being labeled “The ME ME ME Generation,” which has turned into other dysphemisms such as “snowflake,” used to describe self-perceived specialness.
When do viral jokes and memes in the workplace become evidence of unlawful age discrimination?
“OK Boomer” began simply enough as an irreverent joke pointing out generational differences in opinions. But, at its core, it could be interpreted to convey the message: “You are old and therefore your opinion is antiquated.” In the workplace, such phrases can create an inference of age discrimination under federal anti-discrimination laws, such as the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and corresponding state anti-discrimination laws. These laws protect all workers who are at least 40 years of age from discriminatory practices in employment. They also protect workers from age-based discrimination and harassment.
Use of the phrase “OK Boomer” once likely will not rise to the level necessary to demonstrate actual discrimination or harassment based on age. However, repeated comments that reference age and use of such phrases as “OK Boomer” or “snowflake” may be used as evidence of age-based discriminatory practices. Additionally, these types of remarks may be used in litigation to support the argument that employers who do not take steps to stop the behavior foster a workplace culture that tolerates age-based discrimination.
Some state laws also protect younger workers from discrimination or harassment based on age. For example, the New York City Human Rights Law and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination protect employees of all ages from age-based discrimination and harassment. Therefore, repeatedly referring to a younger worker as a “snowflake” or otherwise treating that employee less favorably because of his or her younger age may be seen as age-based discrimination or harassment.
Employers must impart to their employees a shared responsibility to prevent and avoid comments that may be construed as ageist. Employers should consider including in their regular training sessions lessons on the prohibition of age-based comments and remarks in the workplace. Even when intended to be funny, such comments and remarks can be seen as evidence of age-based animus and may lead to claims of age discrimination or harassment. Similarly, employers should consider adopting policies that clearly prohibit comments and remarks that are directly tied to age or demonstrate generational animus.
For additional guidance on these issues, please contact a Jackson Lewis attorney.