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Even isolated comments can trigger age discrimination suits

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

Train managers and supervisors: No age-related comments! None. A simple sentence might not form the entire basis for an age discrimination lawsuit, but it can add fuel to an otherwise-smoldering case.

Recent case: Kas Gaigalas was the top pharmaceuticals salesperson in his office for years. He got stellar reviews and frequent promotions, plus he was called on to train other salespeople. He was also older than 40.

Then a new manager arrived. She implemented a new sales program, which Gaigalas thought was inefficient and possibly illegal. He feared it encouraged salespeople to improperly cite studies and make comparisons as they sought to make sales.

When Gaigalas complained, the manager became exasperated and exclaimed, “Why are all the older guys having a problem with the sales model?” She began hounding Gaigalas about his sales even though he continued to sell the most. Finally, she put him on an improvement plan and downgraded his performance review. Ultimately, she fired him.

Gaigalas alleged age discrimination under Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act and the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act. He pointed out that only older salespeople were put on improvement plans, and that a much younger salesperson replaced him.

The court refused to dismiss the case and saw the “older guys” comment as evidence of possible age discrimination. (Gaigalas v. Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals, No. 1:06-CV-105, WD MI, 2007)

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