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Case In Point

Say you have an older employee who’s resisting change. What if a management consultant suggests that you find “young, energetic” people to take over? A court ruling last week sends a clear warning: Be careful who you listen to for advice … and where you write it down.

Case in Point:
Dean Inman was a 58-year-old VP of technology at a Virginia manufacturing company. Inman had worked for 17 years but he butted heads with the new company president. He failed to adopt the president’s approach or support some of his decisions. The president gave Inman a negative review.

At one point, the president and another executive met with a management consultant for a strategic review. The consultant suggested the company enlist young, energetic “future people.” The president noted the phrase “young, energ[etic]” on a paper napkin.

Soon after that meeting, the president fired Inman, telling Inman that he didn’t meet the desired “profile” of a technical leader, and that the company needed a “more energetic person” to lead Inman's department. A 45-year-old employee who had been the vice president of operations replaced Inman.

Inman sued for age discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). As evidence that age bias was the true firing reason, Inman pointed to his bonuses and the high praise he received at a company meeting just a few weeks before the termination.

The company stuck to its claim that Inman was fired for poor performance. And it argued that the president’s napkin note was meaningless because it only reflected the views of the consultant, who was discussing general personnel matters and had no role in Inman’s termination. (Inman v. Klockner Pentaplast of Am. Inc., 4th Cir., 10/22/09)

What happened next and what lessons can be learned?

The company tried to get the case tossed out on summary judgment, but the court disagreed. It sided with Inman and sent the case to trial. The court pointed to the napkin and said it will be up to the jury to read it and “decide what (the consultant) meant, and, more importantly, what (the president) understood the reference to mean when he wrote it down and whether (the president) adopted the goal of having ‘young, energetic' workers as his own.”

The ruling also noted that “the jury could also conclude that the deficiencies the employer claimed existed in Inman's work were exaggerated to cover up the age-based motivation for the termination.”

3 Lessons Learned … Without Going to Court

1. Select consultants wisely. Make sure they understand the EEO laws so you don’t receive unlawful guidance.

2. Keep it real. If Inman wasn’t performing up to expectations then don’t offer bonuses or praise.

3. Be careful what you write. Even a dirty napkin can come back to clean your clock.

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