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How common is age discrimination in the federal workforce?

On Behalf of | Feb 22, 2022 | Employee Discrimination

The EEOC recently released a report on age discrimination in the federal workforce. It is based on data from 2017 and offers three key takeaways:

  • Workers age 40+ enjoy better representation in the federal workforce than in the private sector
  • Federal employees file more age discrimination complaints than their private sector peers
  • Agencies that generally promote a stronger sense of fairness see fewer complaints

These findings are particularly important because the federal government is the nation’s largest employer with nearly 3 million employees. Of those, roughly 70% are 40 years old or older. In 2019, the average age for general schedule employees was 47.5 years.

Federal sector versus private sector

The EEOC’s report notes that while the federal government seemingly does a better job of welcoming older employees than private sector businesses, it sees a larger gender gap. In short, the older workers in the federal government skew male more than in the private sector.

Additionally, the report makes several other key findings in its comparison of federal and private employees:

  • The average salary for employees ages 40+ is $87,886
  • Salaries tend to increase as employees age, peaking at age 65
  • Older federal employees tend to be more racially diverse than in the private sector
  • The gender pay gap among older federal employees amounts to $7,414 per year
  • The gender pay gap shrinks, but remains, for male and female employees of similar educational backgrounds

Age discrimination complaints

The second main point from the report is that older federal workers tend to file age discrimination complaints more often than their peers in the private sector. The Government Executive pointed out that the sheer number of older employees likely contributes to the volume of complaints, but the EEOC clearly recognizes the problem.

  • 31% of all federal discrimination complaints are age-based
  • This is 8% to 9% more than the number of age-based complaints in the private sector
  • These percentages only changed by one or two points throughout the five years examined by the report
  • The three leading causes of age-related complaints filed by federal workers are for harassment (non-sexual), improper discipline and being overlooked during promotions
  • Age-based complaints are more likely to lead to settlements in the federal sector (approximately 20%) than in the private sector (approximately 13%)
  • When complaints lead to findings, the private sector sees more findings (2.6%) than the federal government (0.5%)

As you can see, age-based complaints in both the federal and private sectors are far more likely to settle than win in court. Moreover, the data show that most employees either do not have a valid case or fail to support their cases appropriately.

Promoting a culture of fairness

Why do federal employees file age-related complaints more often than private sector employees? The EEOC does not have an immediate answer in its report. It does, however, look at when federal employees are more likely to file complaints. The key factor seems to be the employees’ perception of whether their agencies are treating them fairly.

  • There are fewer complaints among agencies that score better on surveys for job satisfaction, confidence in management and perceptions of workplace inclusion
  • The key indicator appears to be whether the agency’s EEO director reports directly to the agency’s head
  • When the EEO director reports directly to the agency’s head, the agency is 24% less likely to see age-related complaints

Unfair is not always illegal

Overall, the EEOC’s report is encouraging. It supports the idea that the federal workforce is generally more welcoming to older employees than the private sector. At the same time, it recognizes there is still room for progress and notes the importance of a clear, accountable reporting structure.

Even so, the report quietly underlines the important distinction between complaints and settlements or findings. Employees may file complaints at any time to address the situations they see as unfair. However, most of those complaints do not result in settlements or findings. Settlements and findings follow when the employees’ perceptions receive clear support from the evidence. Perceptions aren’t enough. Employees need facts, and they need those facts to clearly reveal the connections between their ages and the harm they suffered.


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