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Experience Counts

IN theory, experience and maturity count as assets in the workplace, making employees more valuable. In practice, they sometimes turn into liabilities, making workers more expendable.

As one indication, age-bias suits have multiplied in recent years, brought by employees who believe they were fired - or not hired - because of their age. Yet this type of discrimination has always been hard to prove.

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Now employers have sobering new reason to take older workers' claims seriously. Last week IDS Financial Services, Inc., agreed to pay $35 million to settle an age-discrimination suit. Thirty-two former division managers across the country, all of them over the age of 40, charged that the Minneapolis-based firm replaced them with younger, less-experienced employees. IDS admitted no wrongdoing, insisting that the managers were terminated for business reasons.

Each of the plaintiffs will receive an undisclosed portion of the out-of-court settlement. In addition, the company must monitor its treatment of division managers who are over 40 and report those efforts to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And it must notify the EEOC when it terminates any over-40 division manager. The settlement also requires IDS to train employees involved in employment decisions and to send workers a yearly letter explaining federal age-discrimination laws.

The heavy financial penalties should send a clear warning to corporate America. At the same time, the non-monetary aspects of the settlement could serve as useful guidelines for other companies hoping to avoid costly lawsuits.

Older workers, with their higher salaries and more-expensive health-care premiums, may appear to be tempting targets for dismissal in a business culture concerned with the bottom line. Yet short-term corporate gains can turn into long-term societal losses - for individuals, families, and communities. Age discrimination takes an enormous toll on the country's productive resources. This kind of age-biased downsizing robs businesses of a valuable resource: experienced, productive, loyal workers. It also rob s individuals of dignity.

As employers increasingly use early retirement as a way of cutting costs, they risk perpetuating the stereotype that older workers are a burden. This is all the more reason to welcome the message in the Minneapolis settlement - that workers over 40 still hold an important place in the work force of the '90s.

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