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With nearly 30 years of experience and several awards for selling animal health products, Marvin Fisher was assigned to a top sales unit after a company merger.

About a year later, the company transferred the 60-year-old to a smaller territory with less responsibility. Management said he didn't know enough about the products to sell to corporate swine facilities, had poor communication skills and behaved unprofessionally during sales calls, so it gave his previous accounts to two younger men.

However, one of the company's largest clients and a member of its management team both said he had done a good job.

Fisher had additional evidence suggesting age bias may have been the real reason for his demotion: a comment by a vice president that "we need to get rid of the old guys," and another manager who said the company "wanted to bring some of the younger people along faster." Fisher's supervisor also had referred to him as "the old guy."

Combined, that was enough for a federal appeals court to let Fisher's age discrimination case go forward. (Fisher v. Pharmacia & Upjohn, No. 99-2052, 8th Cir., 2000)

Advice: This case speaks to the importance of maintaining a culture of respect and fairness for all employees.

A case that otherwise might be dismissed can end up at trial because of "stray remarks," even by people who aren't directly involved in decisions to demote or fire an employee.

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