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Leaving managers untrained is ‘extraordinary mistake’

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Hiring,Human Resources

Anthony Mathis had 24 years' experience selling cars, but the application he dropped off at Phillips Chevrolet didn't even get him an interview. The dealership hired seven younger salespeople.

Mathis sued for age discrimination, noting that Phillips Chevrolet asked for the date he was discharged from the military (1959), which clearly showed he was over 40.

Phillips' managers said they never saw his application. Either it was misplaced or Mathis lied about dropping it off, the company said. The jury didn't buy it. It awarded Mathis $50,000 in compensatory damages, and the judge tacked on another $50,000 for willfully violating the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).

How could that happen when the company's own application states that the ADEA "prohibits discrimination on the basis of age with respect to individuals who are at least 40 years of age"? The answer: blatant disregard for the law.

The company's general manager, who had the ultimate hiring power, often made written notes of job candidates' ages on their applications. He testified that he wasn't even aware that it was illegal to consider age when hiring. Another manager admitted that he looked for applicants who were "bright, young and aggressive."

While the company argued that its application statement showed a good-faith effort to comply, the federal appeals court said the evidence was more harmful than helpful. Printing the statement but not training hiring managers about the law shows that the dealership knew the law but didn't care whether its managers complied.

"Leaving managers with hiring authority in ignorance of the basic features of the discrimination laws is an 'extraordinary mistake' for a company to make," the court said. (Mathis v. Phillips Chevrolet Inc., No. 00-1892, 7th Cir., 2001)

Advice: Half an attempt at compliance can sometimes do more damage than no attempt. The dealership could have avoided this problem by training its managers not to consider, discuss or note age during hiring.

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