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Remind all decision-makers: Age-related comments almost always lead to courtroom

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

We can’t say it often enough: Do everything you can to discourage any age-related comments at work.

Make sure managers and supervisors understand that seemingly innocent jokes can come back to bite. Ageist comments do nothing but cause trouble, as this recent case shows.

Recent case: Joan Stephenson worked as an adjunct professor of art at Sussex Community College. She had a semester-by-semester contract and was hired when she was 59 years old.

During her final semester, she had a run-in with her supervisor about the grades she gave some of her students. The supervisor allegedly urged her to award better grades.

During one heated discussion, Stephenson claimed that the supervisor accused her of having a faulty memory and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Shortly after, the college declined to renew Stephenson’s contract.

Stephenson sued, alleging that the classes she would have taught the following semester were being taught by younger adjuncts. As proof of age discrimination, she pointed to the comments about faulty memory and Alzheimer’s.

The court said that was good enough to send the case to trial. (Stephenson v. McWilliams, et al., No. A-5649-07, Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, 2010)

Final note: Remember, not renewing a contract for discriminatory reasons is grounds for a lawsuit. That’s true even if the contract specifies that there are no guarantees of continued employment or contract renewal. That’s why you should carefully document every contract nonrenewal to show a valid business reason for the decision.

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