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Age comments plus termination equal trouble

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Firing,Human Resources

Here’s an important reminder for all supervisors: Innocent age-related comments can come back to haunt you. That’s especially true if the comments come from someone who has a direct say in hiring and firing decisions.

Recent case: Harry Seretti worked for a Ford dealership during the worst part of the economic downturn. Seretti was 58 years old when he was informed that his services were no longer needed and that the dealership was making some changes that didn’t include Seretti. It turned out that those changes included immediately hiring Seretti’s replacement, a 45-year-old former employee.

Seretti sued, alleging age discrimination. He claimed that when he asked his supervisor why he was being let go, the supervisor said that Seretti’s age had “caught up with” him.

Seretti also pointed to other recent comments, including one in which the supervisor said the automobile business had a way of aging someone “real quick,” and that Seretti couldn’t seem to “keep a grip” on things as he got older. Plus, the supervisor said, “maybe you got too old for what you’re doing,” and “these 12-hour days can really age you.”

The dealership argued that poor performance was the real reason it let Seretti go, but offered no evidence to back that up. Plus, it was clear that the supervisor had complete control over the termination decision.

That was all enough for the court to order a trial. (Seretti v. Morrow Ford Lincoln Mercury, No. 10-1277, WD PA, 2012)

Final note: A rogue supervisor with firing power is a dangerous thing. All termination decisions should be based on an independent review and not on one individual’s opinion. Always look at the decision the way a jury would—and make sure documentation can prove a termination was based on performance.

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