Age Discrimination in Employment Act doesn't cover substandard performance

by on January 14, 2009 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Info Center

Was older salesman put at disadvantage?

“Thank you both for coming,” HR manager Jane Fontana said to sales manager Paul Perkins and salesman Barney Oldham.

“We’re here to hear whether you want to use the next 30 days to improve your performance, or to look for a job,” Jane said. “As you know, this is the last step when a salesperson misses quota for two straight quarters.”

“You’ve already made up your mind,” Barney said bitterly. “I was a goner the minute Joe Schultz left. He was willing to give an older fella a chance, but this guy isn’t,” he said, waving at Paul.

“Why do you say that?” Jane asked.

Customer book

“Because I never got my own customer book, and how do you expect me to succeed like that?” Barney replied. “He’s had me baby-sitting April Howard’s customers while she’s on maternity leave, but I can’t make my mark that way.

“Plus, when I got buddy-buddy with the operations manager at Fruhstuck Co., Perkins wouldn’t let me pursue the lead,” Barney continued. “He said another team had the account.”

“I have an answer to that, Jane,” Paul put in. “Barney knows that not every salesperson gets their own customer book right after they finish training. Barbara Battle has been with us four months longer than Barney, and I just got her a book. The truth is that Barney’s results have been disappointing.”

“That’s not the problem,” Barney said. “You just tried to keep an old guy from doing well. I’ll look for a job, and wait and see what I do then.”

Barney left after 30 days, and was replaced by a younger man. He filed an age discrimination act lawsuit. Did he win?

The decision

No. Barney didn’t win his ADEA lawsuit.

The court said he did have the elements of an age bias case. At 58, he was protected by the ADEA, he was qualified for his job, adverse action was taken against him, and his replacement was younger.

So where did his age discrimination case fail? The company had a legitimate reason for acting as it did – his substandard performance. Even Barney admitted that he hadn’t sold as well as he’d hoped, but he said this was because the sales manager set him up for failure by refusing him his own set of customer accounts.

Document performance

The court disagreed. It noted that other employees had gone for longer than Barney did without their own customer book, and had done well enough to remain with the company.

Also, the court said, the fact that a younger man replaced him wasn’t enough to prove his case. At 58, Barney was bound to be older than many job candidates.

For HR managers, the point is clear: Supervisors must document employees’ performance vis-a-vis agreed goals. That way, if an age discrimination suit comes along, even a strong-looking one, you’ll have the ammo to fight it.

Cite: Coccaro v. AT&T Corp., No. 3:03CV914, D. Conn., 7/20/05.

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