Lawsuit for age discrimination ignited by poor communication during RIF

by on January 21, 2008 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Info Center

Worker felt misled and sued for age discrimination

After her employer merged with another company, Debra Krchnavy was terminated in a Reduction in Force (RIF).

During the exit interview, Debra’s boss explained that her position – part customer service and part administrative – was being eliminated and that her job functions would be handled at another office.

At first, Krchnavy – who, at 42, was the oldest employee in the office – understood the situation. She appeared to accept her severance and take her lay-off in stride.

Younger associate stepped in

But shortly after Krchnavy was terminated, her husband stopped by the office to pick up a few of her personal items. And that’s when the trouble started.

Debra’s husband was surprised to see Rich Cobian, a younger associate of his wife, working in her old office.

What’s more, Krchnavy’s husband talked to people that day who led him to believe that he had pretty much taken over her former duties.

When Krchnavy heard that Cobian had replaced her, she hit the roof. After all, she was a 42-year-old woman –protected by ADEA. And she’d been told that her job was being eliminated, not handed to a younger employee!

She wasn’t going to stand for that.

Believing she’d been deliberately misled and illegally discriminated against because of her age, she contacted the EEOC and initiated an age discrimination lawsuit against her former employer.

Employer fought back

In court, the company maintained that all of her customer service functions – and most of her administrative duties – had been transferred to another office.

Further, it argued that he hadn’t replaced Krchnavy, but had merely assumed a few of her responsibilities. And the fact that Cobian had moved into her office was coincidental. The employer couldn’t be faulted for that alone.

The company showed that he had a new role and a new job title (mostly providing marketing support). His new position had its own job description with responsibilities having almost nothing to do with Krchnavy’s former job.

However, a few of his duties did overlap with some of Krchnavy’s former ones. And that gave her the false impression that she’d been replaced by the younger Cobian.

The decision

After reviewing all the documentation and hearing both sides, the court sided with the employer. The age discrimination lawsuit was thrown out of court.

In its decision, the court wrote “This court has consistently emphasized that it will not sit as a super personnel department to review an employer’s business decisions.”

The court wasn’t about to make hiring and firing decisions for the company. The RIF – and Krchnavy’s dismissal – was legitimate in the eyes of the law.

Honest explanation at exit

There’s a lesson to be learned from this case: The RIF was legal. Krchnavy’s termination was proper – on paper, anyway. But the employer was sued for age discrimination. Why?

Most likely, the problem arose during Krchnavy’s exit interview. Her supervisor probably wasn’t thinking about Krchnavy as a member of a protected class. If he had, he might have explained that Cobian (and a few others from the office) would step in and handle some of her administrative tasks. That way, she wouldn’t have gotten the wrong impression when she heard about Cobian in her old office.

When conducting an exit interview for someone dismissed in an RIF, always be sure to:

    Make a business case for the RIF. Explain what will happen to the person’s job. If possible, show them job descriptions that are consistent with the business justification.
    Never tell lies or half-truths to spare people’s feelings. It’s possible that Krchnavy’s supervisor didn’t tell her that her former colleagues would be handling some of her tasks because he didn’t want her to think she was so easily expendable.

But by trying to be kind, he allowed her to form a negative perception that led to her age discrimination lawsuit. It’s all about communication

In this case, a supervisor’s ineffective communication – not the RIF – caused a resource-draining age discrimination lawsuit.

If Krchnavy’s boss had considered her status as a member of a protected class and thought about how she might perceive the company’s actions after she left, Krchnavy probably wouldn’t have sued for age discrimination.

Cite: Krchnavy v. Limagrain Genetics Corporation, U.S. Court of Appeals, 7th Circuit, No. 01-2275, 6/24/02

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