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Supreme Court greases path for bias cases

Workers don't need to show that employer meant to discriminate

by on
in Discrimination and Harassment,Firing,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Performance Reviews

Your chances of winning a job discrimination lawsuit just took a tumble. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that workers don't need direct evidence that their employer intended to discriminate against them. Workers only have to show that they suffered adverse treatment (like firing or demotion) and that the company's explanation for it was false. Then a jury decides if the company's true motive was discriminatory.

The case involved Roger Reeves, 57, who was fired from his job as a supervisor and replaced by three workers in their 30s. He sued for age bias.

His company claimed that he failed to keep accurate attendance records or to discipline absent workers. At trial, however, Reeves showed that these reasons were false. That wasn't good enough for the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which threw out the $100,000 award. Reeves had to show more than a false reason for the firing; he also had to show that the motive was discriminatory. But the Supreme Court sided with Reeves, saying workers don't usually need to provide proof that the company intended to discriminate. All they need to show is that the reason you gave for the firing was false. (Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, No. 99-536, 2000)

Advice: Always give the real reason for a firing, demotion or refusal to hire; then document it. If you don't have documentation, give a warning instead of more severe discipline until you are able to document the employee's deficiencies adequately. Also, continually remind managers that they should avoid all comments about age, race or gender, even in jest. Treat employees with similar performance problems equally. In this case, younger managers who failed to keep accurate records had not been disciplined.

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