If your organization aims to attract a younger, more hip clientele, watch how you convey that idea to employees who don’t fit your target demographic.
Be especially careful if your efforts result in successfully recruiting younger employees to fill openings. While the gradual change toward younger new hires may not stem from intentional age discrimination, older employees suddenly may feel that they’re old news. Your effort may seem part of a concerted plan to get rid of older staff.
That can spell trouble under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) if you have to terminate an older worker for what you consider legitimate performance issues.
Recent case: Patricia Tomassi began working as a residential manager for an 11,000-unit rental community when she was 60 years old. After a year, the owners outsourced to Insignia Residential Group, and Tomassi stayed on as its employee.
The trouble began when Insignia started targeting younger rental customers as part of an effort to attract young professionals. Although Tomassi received raises and generally good reviews, she began noticing age-related comments. When she was terminated, her supervisor commented that he could give her a good recommendation since he knew she was good at working with older renters.
When Tomassi learned that her supervisor had revised her job description and hired a 25-year-old to fill her slot, she sued for age discrimination. She told the court about the stray, age-related comments she’d heard and pointed to her replacement as proof of age bias.
While a lower court said that evidence wasn’t enough, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and ordered a trial. A jury will decide whether Insignia went too far in trying to attract a younger clientele. (Tomassi v. Insignia, No. 05-6219-CV, 2nd Cir., 2007)
Final tip: If you want to create a more youth-oriented image, make sure supervisors don’t create an age-hostile environment. That means no age jokes and no stray comments about retirement. If you must discipline an older employee, document your reasons with concrete, indisputable evidence.
Online resource: For more guidance on the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act, go to www.eeoc.gov/types/age.html.
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