There's nothing wrong with having a workplace discussion with employees to find out where they see themselves in the organization over the next few years. It's also a good way of raising the issue of retirement with older workers.
But employers must be careful not to assume an employee is retiring just because he or she has reached retirement age.
It is not a violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act to ask an employee about retirement plans as long as an employer doesn't pose the question more than once or twice a year to determine staffing levels for the company. Asking more often, could be perceived as a pressure tactic and could be grounds for a discrimination lawsuit.
"The Baby Boomer generation has started reaching the traditional retirement age of 65, but many are choosing to stay in the workforce," said Ed Zalewski, an editor at J.J. Keller & Associates, a publisher of regulatory and compliance manuals for employers based in Neenah, Wisconsin.
There is no mandatory retirement age for private employers, and many employers are justifiably reluctant to pose the question of retirement plans out of fear that it could make an older worker feel he is being pushed out the door to make room for someone younger.
"Sometimes employers have good intentions," Mr. Zalewski said. "They are not trying to force the person out. But repeatedly asking them about retiring can give the impression the company doesn't want them there anymore.
"They may be a valued employee and it could be a well-intended comment to suggest they spend time with their grandkids. But if a case ends up in an age discrimination lawsuit, those well-meaning comments could come across as hostile comments."
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which investigates discrimination complaints, received 22,857 age discrimination claims or complaints in 2012. The EEOC has been receiving about 22,000 age discrimination complaints each year since 2008, which could be related to the impact of the Great Recession and the stock market crash.
Workers of all ages have struggled to hold onto jobs at a time when many companies have downsized their staffs and laid off people to cut costs.
Meanwhile, "There are a number of employees across all industries across the country who are finding they have to work longer because they feel they are not financially able to retire," said Marty Giglio, a principal at human resources consulting firm, Buck Consultants, Downtown.
"The challenge to employers is they are unable to bring in new workers," he said.
"But many employers want to keep older employees on the staff due to their experience and knowledge. When these people walk out the door, they take the knowledge with them. If you don't have them to train and mentor younger employees, you end up with a knowledge gap."
Mr. Zalewski said a more sensitive way to discuss retirement plans with an older worker would be to say something like, 'You've given many years of service to the company and accumulated a lot of knowledge that we will be sorry to lose. We know that you'll eventually retire, and we'd like to plan for the transition, so we'd like to get as much notice as possible. Have you started thinking about when you might retire?'"
Tim Grant: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1591.