Heated words led to termination, but was it really about age?
  • leadership
  • Blog post

Heated words led to termination, but was it really about age?

“I said, if you’d let me get on with it, I can get the machine repaired within a hour or so,” production operator Karl Koppel said, raising his voice. “All this finger-pointing about who’s to blame isn’t helping.”

“There’s no need to yell,” supervisor Jason Frantz replied icily. “I heard you the first time.”

“How could I tell?” Karl said in the same aggrieved tone. “There’s a lot of noise in here. And you didn’t react the first time I said it.”

“That’s about enough out of you,” Jason said. “It’s your fault the machine went down in the first place, and now you can’t even talk about it in a civil tone.”

“I want you to go home and think about whether you want to keep working here,” the supervisor continued.

Karl started with surprise. “What? Why wouldn’t I? I’ve been doing this job just fine for 40 years.”

“I still want you to go home,” Jason said. “Seniority is one thing. Insubordination’s another. And I don’t consider that your performance has been all that fine, especially lately.”

“Insubordination?” Karl repeated incredulously. “I only raised my voice so you could hear. And I don’t hear so well myself anymore, especially with the machines going. Plus I never heard of anybody being punished for talking back in this plant.”

Karl goes home
“I’m not going to wait all day,” Jason said. So Karl stalked off to his locker, changed his clothes and went home.

The next day, Jason talked to the plant manager and recommended that Karl be fired.

He said Karl had caused the breakdown of an important machine, had been rude about it afterward, and had refused to leave when ordered to do so.

Jason also said Karl’s performance hadn’t been up to par for several months.

The plant manager accepted Jason’s suggestion and fired Karl, citing both his conduct and his performance. A 35-year-old man was hired to replace him.

Karl, who was 62, said the company was victimizing him because of his age, and sued for age discrimination.

Did he win?

The Decision
Yes, Karl won an important though partial victory when a federal appeals court said his age discrimination case was strong enough to go to trial. The court cited two main points:

  1. Karl’s punishment appeared out of line with the usual way managers dealt with insubordination at the plant, and
  2. There was no written documentation showing poor performance. Indeed, his most recent evaluation was “meets expectations.”

When the court also considered that Karl was replaced by a substantially younger person, it said there was plenty of reason to believe the reasons given for his termination were indeed pretexts for age discrimination.

When applying discipline, supervisors must consider how similar cases have been treated in the past. Undue severity can be painted as discrimination once lawyers get involved. And documentation is always critical when you discipline someone for performance deficiencies.

Cite: Ridout v. JBS USA, No. 12-3220, 8th Cir., 6/14/13. Fictionalized for dramatic effect.

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