CEOs unwise age references lose an age discrimination case

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

Age-related remarks can taint legitimate discipline

Ill-advised remarks about an employee’s age can make it difficult – or impossible – to discipline the person later, even on legitimate grounds. We’re reminded of that management trap by a recent age discrimination case in Colorado.

The employee, who was in his 60s, worked as the highly compensated manager of a trade show venue. Top executives grew concerned that he wasn’t providing value for his six-figure salary, and called him in for a meeting.

HEART TO HEART?

The CEO himself was 69, and apparently thought he could use their age proximity to set a heart-to-heart tone. He asked the manager his exact age – it was 63 – inquired how long he expected to work, and suggested they work together to find his successor – “someone younger to teach,” as the CEO put it.

The manager left the meeting in a snit.

The CEO’s aide called to express his concern with the turn the meeting had taken, and said, “You are starting to get old like I am.”

A few months later, a new controller discovered that the manager had taken unwarranted vacation and payroll advances, was in the habit of coming to work late and leaving early, and had intimidated many of his subordinates.

PLAUSIBLE, BUT NO CIGAR

The company decided to fire him. But when it did, he sued for age discrimination – and got a favorable decision from a federal appeals court.

The court accepted that the employer had plausible-sounding justification for the termination. But the courts also said that while the remarks by the CEO and his assistant came a full year before the manager’s termination, and were not repeated; they still raised a real possibility that age bias was at work.

Lesson learned: Managers with hiring and firing authority should be aware that any talk about age could be the precursor of an age discrimination lawsuit.

Cite: Hare v. Denver Merchandise Mart, No. 06-1270 , 10th Cir., 11/2/07

Issue 6.11
12/31/07

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