Age Discrimination or Mistake in Context

“I’d like to retire, too,” technician Graham Andrews told HR manager Priscilla Hayes. “Who wouldn’t? I’ve even got my desert island all picked out …”

“What do you mean?” Priscilla questioned. “We’re talking about your application for the reorganized maintenance team at the new Overbrook facility. Are you serious about wanting the job?”

“Sure,” Graham said. “When you close this plant, I’ll need to work somewhere. Might as well be with a company I know. I was just blowing smoke about retiring because you mentioned that Jim Martin was going to. There’s no way I could afford to retire now, at age 58.”

Priscilla shot Graham a sharp glance.

“I must say that talking about retirement isn’t the best way to convince an interviewer that you’re serious about the total quality approach we’ll be taking at the new facility,” she said.

Sense of humor wanted

“Just a joke,” Graham said. “Trouble with you young hotshots is you have no sense of humor.”

“Oh, we do,” Priscilla said. “It’s just that what you said wasn’t funny, given the situation.”

“OK,” Graham said. “You’re the boss. Let it be written that I’m interested in the job with the maintenance team over at Overbrook.”

As it worked out, Graham wasn’t one of the maintenance people selected for the new facility, and he was part of the reduction in force.

After finding a new job in maintenance elsewhere, Graham sued for age discrimination.

Did he win?

The decision

Yes. Graham persuaded a judge to send his age discrimination lawsuit to trial. This left the company with the unwelcome choice of settling or spending more money and time in court.

The court said there was a reasonable possibility that Graham’s comment about retiring was in fact a pie-in-the-sky remark, as he claimed, not an expression of disinterest in the new job. The idea that Graham had been joking was backed up by the fact that he did look for another job as soon as he was laid off.

If the company took Graham’s comment more seriously than the situation warranted, this could signal age discrimination.

Keeping your balance

Humor at work can be problematic. You never know who’ll take a joke the wrong way.

But HR pros need to retain a sense of humor and balance just the same. In this case, if Priscilla had asked Graham whether he was serious rather than assuming that he was, she might have saved the company a lot of trouble and an age discrimination lawsuit.

Cite: Green v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., No. 01-K-2324, D. Colo., 6/14/06. Fictionalized for dramatic effect.

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