As the workforce ages, we can expect to see an increase in age discrimination claims in the workplace. A recent case shows how these claims can arise.
The 56-year old employee was a manager and had worked for the employer for 11 years. Throughout his career, he received positive performance reviews and bonuses, including a significant bonus in the year before he was fired.
A new supervisor was placed over the employee. He looked at the employee and his performance differently. He wrote-up the employee for two major work related deficiencies. In both instances, the evidence showed the employee was not completely at fault. In fact, when one occasion took place, the employee was on vacation.
Just before the employee was fired, the new supervisor noted the company was plagued by employees who had worked there too long. The supervisor fired the employee, and replaced him with a 34-year-old.
As it turns out, the 34-year-old replacement manager committed similar mistakes and yet was not held responsible for them. In fact, the new supervisor fired 17 employees; only two were under the age of 40.
The court held that there was sufficient evidence of age discrimination. The real issue was pretext. A new supervisor can come in and evaluate a department and the employees in a different way. However, courts will be suspicious when a long-term employee who received positive reviews (and bonuses) is suddenly performing below expectations.
If the new supervisor evaluates employees on a different standard, the new standards must be clearly documented, and the supervisor must give the employee a fair opportunity to adjust to the new rules. When this doesn’t occur, a discrimination claim may soon follow.