Ill-Considered Questions About Retirement May Support Age Discrimination Claim
A supervisor’s repeated questions about when the employee was going to retire was “one of the most powerful pieces of evidence” of age discrimination in the case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit found.
In Sloat v. Hewlett-Packard Enterprise Co., a high performing, older employee was transferred to a new manager. The manager was not welcoming, made derogatory age-based comments, gave him a low rating and minimal salary increase, reassigned his responsibilities, only communicated with him a few times over a period of months, and attempted to have him terminated in a one-person layoff, before the employee was finally let go as part of a larger reduction in force. In addition to all of this, the manager also asked – at least 10 times – when the employee was going to retire. The employee filed suit for age discrimination and retaliation.
In finding the repeated questions about retirement to be evidence of animus towards age (along with certain other problematic comments and conduct), the Sixth Circuit observed that, “Retirement is obviously a concept closely associated with being older; the term ‘retirement age’ is not used to describe persons in the bloom of youth.”
Does this mean that an employer can never ask about retirement plans? Of course not. Employers must engage in succession planning, and the timing of an employee’s retirement may be a significant factor in that process. But context matters. Such questions should be thoughtful, appropriate, and carefully handled.