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Stray comments won’t cost age bias lawsuit

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Stray co-worker comments about an employee’s age can be embarrassing, but they don’t turn an ordinary discharge into a winning age discrimination case. While you don’t want to encourage teasing or joking about age, don’t panic just because of an occasional insensitive word.

Recent case: William was 57 years old and worked as a guest services manager for the Minnesota Wild hockey team. His job involved planning events and making sure visitors and guests were taken care of.

His supervisor sometimes criticized William for tardiness, not participating actively in meetings and generally not performing well. William took her criticism as age bias and compiled a long list of perceived slights. For example, when he left his glasses at home and couldn’t read the materials passed around at meetings, she told him that “your eyes get worse as you get older.” He also objected to her request that he wear a tie, something few co-workers did.

When he was fired for not completing a performance improvement plan, he sued, alleging he was the victim of age discrimination.

He pointed to the manager’s comments and added a long list of co-worker comments. These included someone’s statement that William liked “classic rock” because it was from his “era,” that he was “old-fashioned” for liking vanilla ice cream and that he didn’t have to worry about making arrangements for his children since they were grown.

The court tossed out William’s discrimination case. First, it concluded that the few comments from his supervisor weren’t enough to prove age bias. Second, it said that stray comments from others who didn’t make the termination decision weren’t severe or frequent enough to create a hostile work environment. (Bennis v. Minnesota Hockey Ventures Group, No. 12-CV-341, DC MN, 2013)

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