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Full disclosure: This was a dumpster fire on Reddit, and I am just posting here to get a more nuanced opinion. I am not the original asker and I don’t know which US state.

Supposedly, there is a tech company that has instituted a rule that, when making decisions about hiring or promoting, they will only consider degrees that were obtained within the last 10 years. Is this legal?

I can certainly see an argument for this being age discrimination, but could there also be a counterargument that anyone can always go back to school, and in the tech industry there are legitimate reasons why a more recent diploma would be more valuable?

  • I would be optimistic and interpret it as the employer saying "if you have been working in the field for ten years, then we frankly don't care whether you have a diploma or not". – gnasher729 May 30 '19 at 22:12
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This policy would appear to have a disparate impact on workers age 40 and older, given that most workers obtain degrees in their 20s and few obtain a second degree later. Workers age 40 and older are protected from employment discrimination under the ADEA.

Policies with a disparate impact may be considered discriminatory, but not necessarily. The EEOC rule as of 2012 is that such a policy is not illegal if it is based on a "reasonable factor other than age". It is not clear to me whether the 10-year degree policy would pass this test, and it might depend on how the employer justified the rule.

Here is the discussion from the EEOC's FAQ:

8.What determines whether an employment practice is based on Reasonable Factors Other than Age?

An employment practice is based on an RFOA when it was reasonably designed and administered to achieve a legitimate business purpose in light of the circumstances, including its potential harm to older workers.

Example 1:

If a police department decided to require applicants for patrol positions to pass a physical fitness test to be sure that the officers were physically able to pursue and apprehend suspects, it should know that such a test might exclude older workers more than younger ones. Nevertheless, the department's actions would likely be based on an RFOA if it reasonably believed that the test measured the speed and strength appropriate to the job, and if it did not know, or should not have known, of steps that it could have taken to reduce harm to older workers without unduly burdening the department.

The rule emphasizes the need for an individualized consideration of the facts and circumstances surrounding the particular situation. It includes the following list of considerations relevant to assessing reasonableness:

  • The extent to which the factor is related to the employer's stated business purpose;
  • The extent to which the employer defined the factor accurately and applied the factor fairly and accurately, including the extent to which managers and supervisors were given guidance or training about how to apply the factor and avoid discrimination;
  • The extent to which the employer limited supervisors' discretion to assess employees subjectively, particularly where the criteria that the supervisors were asked to evaluate are known to be subject to negative age-based stereotypes;
  • The extent to which the employer assessed the adverse impact of its employment practice on older workers; and
  • The degree of the harm to individuals within the protected age group, in terms of both the extent of injury and the numbers of persons adversely affected, and the extent to which the employer took steps to reduce the harm, in light of the burden of undertaking such steps.

Here is the full text of the rule, 77 FR 19080.

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    I think the policy could also not have a disparate impact if the employer considered relevant experience equally to time spent in a degree program. So somebody who has been working in the field for the last 20 years would have equal "relevant knowledge" to someone who got a masters over 6 years and worked for 14. – IllusiveBrian May 30 '19 at 11:04
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Its not really age discrimination, because they are going by the age of the diploma rather than the age of the person.

I don't know of any court cases where this has been tested, so if it really went to court it would be up to the judge or jury there, honestly. There is no real prescience to base this on.

However, it would probably be found to be legal, because it would be similar to giving preference to people from a more prestigious school, in that you could favor some degrees over others.

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  • -1 This seems to ignore "disparate impact" theory, which would probably be central in a case like this. – bdb484 May 30 '19 at 15:53
  • No offense, but it does not sound like you understand what disparate impact means, because this has nothing to do with that. – Putvi May 30 '19 at 17:15
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    Next they will only hire people who got their driving license in the last two years. – gnasher729 May 30 '19 at 22:15
  • How do you figure that this is not a disparate impact case? – bdb484 May 31 '19 at 21:23
  • Well first of all a diploma is not a protected class of people since its not even people. Secondly, some if not all states have age limits you have to reach before you can file an age discrimination lawsuit in regards to employment. – Putvi May 31 '19 at 21:27
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No, this is not illegal discrimination, and is necessary as tech in the modern era advances quite rapidly when compared to other sciences. For example, I work in the tech industry and when I started, the concept of Cloud Computing was just starting to hit the market for consumers... today, pretty much all of my work is on the company cloud (I remember when it was saved to my work station). As a general rule, Moore's Law (revised as of 1975) states that the every two years, a Computer's processing power will double (though this is not a hard constant as the rate has fallen to every 18 months and more recently every 26-30 months though it's likely to fall again soon, according to Intel). This means that more stuff can be done with less space taken by the physical machine and this opens up new avenues of use for a computer (It's also the reason why jokes about merely purchasing a top of the line computer will render it obsolete).

This is also probably for new hires as well, as the company man is probably engaged with new tech needs day in and day out, but someone who's last computer degree was in the 1980s will have a tough time understanding the tools of the trade in current year... some of the most popular languages weren't in use... or have been drastically updated to better used more powerful systems... than what the 80s degree holder has.

Finally, while age is a protected class, it's not as strongly protected as say race or religion or sex and has different level of requirement. A 50 year old and a 23 year old who both received their degree in the past 10 years are equally qualified in that regard so here, age is just a number, not a classification. As the holding of a degree is a "Merit", it's not discrimination in the eyes of the law.

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  • Specifically to the computer industry I'd agree that you have to keep up on new things. I work in tech as well. Not every industry is the same though. – Putvi May 29 '19 at 19:46
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    Weird, i got my bs in computer science almost 20 years ago, and i understand the cloud just fine. It doesn't sound like you know what is really required for a degree. – Andy May 30 '19 at 1:48
  • @Andy: I understand just fine. But managment and HR don't really have the best understanding of the tech industry. And in industry, they do the hiring. So they will favor more recent degrees over much older degrees. And just because you get a BS 20 years ago doesn't mean you worked in a field that uses that degree for 20 years. – hszmv May 30 '19 at 13:07
  • @Andy not to mention the classic complaints about newly minted grads not understanding what they actually will be doing in their jobs. – phoog May 30 '19 at 17:42
  • Did you know that Bjarne Stroustroup didn't learn C++ at university? And Donald Knuth doesn't have any diploma or degree related to computer science? – gnasher729 May 30 '19 at 22:14

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