Even innocent age-related comments can trigger a bias lawsuit

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Here’s something to add to your regular training sessions for managers and supervisors. Warn them against making age-related comments. These can backfire, even if they aren’t intended to be ageist or demeaning to anyone.

Recent case: Danny worked in the corrections industry for many years, first for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for 33 years and then for Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a private prison management company. At CCA, he first served as an assistant warden at a minimum-security facility. Then he was promoted to warden at a medium-security prison.

Before long, CCA grew concerned about Danny’s ability to effectively manage the facility. During an audit, it found numerous security breaches and informed Danny that his performance was not adequate.

Later, Danny alleged that he spoke with his supervisor, who told him that his “management skills are not suited to the younger generation joining the workforce now.” The manager added that things had changed since the two of them began working. He also suggested that Danny should go back to school to learn more up-to-date management skills.

CCA eventually fired Danny and he sued, alleging age discrimination. He tried to use the comments to show age bias.

His case was dismissed, based on clear proof of poor performance, which trumped any evidence that the comments were ageist. (Horton v. CCA, No. 12-20404, 5th Cir., 2013)

Final note: Always focus on performance. Forget offering career advice, which an employee might easily misinterpret.

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