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A gray area: What to do when older workers start to coast

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Firing,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training,Performance Reviews

When employees approach retirement, they sometimes go on autopilot. They may think there’s no way their employer will fire them at their age, assuming management will fear an Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) lawsuit. Or they simply slow down because they feel they have earned the right.

Either way, such sudden drops in productivity can frustrate everyone involved, including co-workers and supervisors.

The truth is an older employee isn’t untouchable. You can demand the same level of productivity from all employees and discipline them accordingly. Just be prepared to take special steps to stay away from age bias claims. (See below.)

Recent case: Curtis Maughan, who was nearing retirement age, worked for Alaska Airlines. During an interview for an internal promotion, a manager asked Maughan about his five-year goals. Maughan confessed that he planned to retire in the next few years since he was just 18 months shy of retirement eligibility.

He didn’t get the promotion.

When Maughan asked why he’d been rejected, a supervisor told him it was partly because he’d told the interview panel that he intended to retire soon.

The next day Maughan received a very critical performance review. It criticized some of the same things that an earlier review had praised.

Maughan suspected age discrimination and complained to HR. Instead of investigating his complaint, the airline offered him a severance package, which he refused. The airline then fired Maughan, allegedly for poor performance.

Maughan filed an ADEA lawsuit. The court sent the case to trial, saying there was enough evidence that the stated “performance problems” were simply a smoke screen for age discrimination. It pointed to the proximity between Maughan’s firing and his announced intention to retire, plus the fact that he was terminated for performance issues that had been previously ignored. (Maughan v. Alaska Airlines, No. 07-6198, 10th Cir., 2008)

Final note: Always try to imagine how a judge or a jury might view the employee’s version of events. Could it seem as if you’re trying to rush the employee out the door? Might a court believe you’re trying to wiggle out of paying a pension?

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