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Before reorganization, draw up a staff contingency plan

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Are you planning to use an early-retirement incentive to help reduce the size of your work force? If so, it’s wise to prepare contingency plans for the remaining open positions and carefully document them. That’s especially important if you don’t have a good idea of how many employees will take the early-retirement package.

Here’s why: While some may find early retirement attractive, others may stay on, leaving you with an unbalanced work force. A disproportionate number of less-experienced employees may depart, and you may have to move more experienced employees into those open positions.

Transferred employees may perceive their less desirable positions as punishment for not retiring and an effort to drive out older employees. That may spell a lawsuit under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).

To protect yourself, outline in advance how you’ll reshuffle your work force to meet organizational needs. That way, you can show a legitimate reason for your actions unrelated to age discrimination.

Recent case: Nancy Ruhling worked as a Newsday editor when the company offered an early-retirement buyout in 2002. She decided to stay.

Just days after she rejected the offer, Ruhling was transferred from the news desk to the features desk. Her hours also changed. She considered the lighter features assignment less desirable and less prestigious than covering hard news.

She sued, alleging age discrimination. Newsday claimed it needed to transfer employees to meet internal needs. But it couldn’t explain why it transferred others to the news desk when it moved Ruhling out.

The court considered the close link in time between her turning down the retirement offer and her transfer, as well as Newsday’s inability to articulate a rationale. It concluded the reason might be anger at Ruhling’s refusal to accept the buyout and an effort to force her to quit because of her age. The case now goes to trial. (Ruhling v. Tribune Company, No. CV-04-2430, ED NY, 2007)

Online resource: For more advice on age discrimination compliance, go to www.eeoc.gov/types/age.html.  

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