Age versus Fitness for Duty: Which Standard to Use?

by Michael Haberman on July 11, 2013 · 6 comments


Does the calendar control your employment decisions or fitness of duty?

Does the calendar control your employment decisions or fitness of duty?

I originally published this in September of 2011. Based on a news story I thought it was appropriate to rerun it. In Atlanta the city government had to pay a large settlement to a 60 year old firefighter who was removed from his job and replaced by a younger firefighter. The reason originally given was his age, despite the fact that there had never been any assessment made of his fitness for duty.  I have no objection to removing a firefighter from duty if they are not fit for duty, regardless of age. But to remove someone solely on the basis of their age is blatant discrimination, as the City of Atlanta discovered.

The Post

A bizarre occurrence was profiled in the local news yesterday that has raised the question of what standard should be used in making an employment decision, age or fitness for duty. Here is the situation. A man had just gotten into his car when he looked up to see a pistol barrel pointed at him. The gun was being held by a police officer who was saying “This is my car.” The man raised his hands as the officer then repeated “This is my car.” The officer started to open the door when he stopped and looked in the car and suddenly said “Oh, this is not my car, Sorry” and then walked away and got in a police SUV. The only resemblance the two vehicles bore was the color white. Naturally the man was a bit disturbed by this and reported it to the police (and got an attorney). An investigation revealed that the police officer is a sergeant who is due to turn 70 years of age next month. Naturally this then raised questions as to whether someone that age should still be in the force.

Should there be an age limit

The reporter discussing this story broadened his line of questioning to the fire department asking if there should be age limits on public safety positions. Someone (wearing a firefighter’s uniform) responded to his question by saying “Certainly, would you want a senior citizen trying to climb a ladder to rescue you?” My wife and I were both watching the story and her response was “That would not bother me as long as the person was capable of doing the job.” I agreed.

I know it is legal under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act for fire and police departments to have mandatory retirement at age 55. But I think both the police and fire departments, or any organization for that matter, are making a mistake if they make this decision solely on the basis of age. I think they are better making this decision on the basis of “fitness for duty.” I actually think that is a standard that all employees should have to meet. I have seen many a police officers under 4o years of age with waistlines exceeding 48 inches that could no more run after a criminal than the man-in-the-moon.

Fitness for duty

The ADEA also allows companies to force retirements on executives, with conditions, but I think the same standard should apply there as well, fitness for duty. Perhaps a bit more problematic than physical fitness is making a determination of mental fitness but it is better than just relying on the calendar for making decisions on whether someone should continue working.

What do you have in place? Are you still relying on the calendar to make some decisions or the ability to perform the job?

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Greg Morris July 12, 2013 at 8:38 am

Ironically, James Bond adds an interesting element to this conversation. Those of you who saw the latest brilliant installment; “Skyfall”, saw Daniel Craig’s Bond as “greying, wounded, and unfit for service” according to critic Sara Vizcarrondo ( But the thing is–he’s still the best person for the job. So what to do when a person isn’t technically “fit for duty” but has developed intangibles that make them indespensable (for now)?


Michael Haberman July 12, 2013 at 9:37 am

You do help make the point that no one standard should be used to judge someone’s ability to do a job, especially not age.


Cherry Finch July 22, 2013 at 10:44 pm

When a police officer is out of uniform and not working a paid shift, he or she is generally considered a private citizen. In an ideal world, a trained police officer should have the self-discipline to not break the law while off-duty. However, things can and do go wrong, and a private citizen who has been assaulted by another private citizen has the same right to report the attack, press criminal charges or sue the offender in a civil court. Under some circumstances, the fact that the accused offender is a police officer may work to his or her advantage in the court system, but it can also be a negative because he or she should have known better than to break the same laws he or she has sworn to uphold.


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