Judges are naturally suspicious. They regularly see the worst of humanity, and many don’t have the rosiest outlook on life. So when they hear that an employer suddenly disciplined an employee who has put in decades of service with nary a blot on her disciplinary record, they think “age discrimination.”
If one of your supervisors suddenly wants to discipline such an employee, make absolutely sure the discipline is warranted. Otherwise, watch out for an age discrimination lawsuit.
Recent case: Kathleen Martin went to work for Toledo Cardiology Consultants fresh out of high school in 1967. She rose through the ranks, finally making more than $53,000.
In all her decades with the practice, she never had a disciplinary incident. But then a new supervisor put her on probation. The alleged infractions: Using the company’s FedEx account to ship a personal package and missing a co-worker’s bridal shower—evidently a sign she didn’t do enough to get along with others.
Then the employer cut her salary and reduced her duties. Martin filed an age discrimination complaint—and was fired shortly after.
She sued, alleging age discrimination. In court, Martin pointed out that other, younger employees had received raises after she was fired.
The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals said she had circumstantial evidence of age discrimination. A jury will now decide whether the reason given for her demotion and subsequent termination were merely pretexts to cover up age discrimination, and a policy favoring younger employees. (Martin v. Toledo Cardiology Consultants, No. 07-3724, 6th Cir., 2008)
Final note: If a new supervisor identifies serious problems with an employee who has previously compiled an exemplary record, make sure the employee has a chance to fix those problems. Discipline in such a case requires patience.
- How to Fire an Employee the Legal Way: 6 Termination Guidelines
- Medical exams: When can you require them?
- Think the case is settled? Not until the employee signs on dotted line
- Carefully document RIF strategy to guard against discrimination claims
- Track discipline by offense, worker traits to reduce bias risk