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Older worker too slow? Firing isn’t age bias

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in Discrimination and Harassment

Some older workers hear “slow” and immediately assume that’s code for “old.” But sometimes, slow just means slow.

Recent case: Cheryl, who was over age 40, sold cellular service for Alltel Communications. She shared workspace with a number of younger sales representatives.

Almost from day one, supervisors counseled Cheryl on attendance and tardiness, noting that she was frequently late for her shift and seldom came back from meal breaks on time.

Although Cheryl did receive one good year-end review, her performance slowly deteriorated. Her supervisors constantly complained that she took far too long to complete transactions and often took much longer than her colleagues to close out at the end of the day.

Finally, when nothing improved, Alltel terminated Cheryl.

She sued, alleging age discrimination. She said that the claim she was slow in completing transactions was just code for saying she was too old to work in cellular sales. Plus, she said that older customers sought her out because of her maturity and took longer to choose the services they wanted to purchase.

The court didn’t buy her arguments, and sided with Alltel, noting it had given Cheryl plenty of opportunities to improve her speed and correct her tardiness. (Austin v. Alltel Communications, et al., No. 1:09-CV-900, MD NC, 2013)

Final note: Had supervisors made other comments to accompany their complaint of slow performance, the case might have turned out differently. But no one called Cheryl “old” or made other negative comments. Supervisors focused on her actual performance, measuring it against co-workers, both young and old. They used objective measures, such as time spent to finish setting up accounts for customers.

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