When a Wisconsin company restructured, it laid off a 44-year-old customer service rep. None of her direct supervisors or co-workers took part in deciding which employees would be laid off. But her boss gave her contradictory stories about the termination decisions. After she left, a good portion of her duties was passed on to an employee who was 10 years younger.
She sued for age discrimination, arguing that her supervisor's wishy-washy statements were evidence of bias. A district court sided with the company, and a federal appeals court agreed. Reason: The employee couldn't prove her case because she didn't have enough evidence that the real reason for her firing was her age.
Specifically, the court said bias can be inferred only when decision makers give false or inconsistent statements about an employment decision. In this case, the worker's supervisor didn't even participate in the layoff decision. (Krchnavy v. Limagrain Genetics Corp., No. 01-2275, 7th Cir., 2002)
Advice: Before layoffs, establish and document who the decision makers are. Then let those people make the call on who stays and who goes, using legitimate, business-related criteria. In cases like this, top-down communication is your best protection. Justify your layoff decisions to workers with clear, business-related reasons.