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Do Offhand Comments Count As Age Discrimination?

May 24 2016, by PEOPLE in Sales

As employers and business owners, there’s no doubt that your clients can be intimidated by the many rigorous EEOC regulations. But as agents we can help them navigate those tricky waters by staying up to date on EEOC rules and the various discrimination cases that come out. One recent case, Sterk vs. Zimmer, Inc., determines whether or not offhand comments can count as age discrimination. This is some valuable information that you can share with your clients that will keep them on the right track.

The employee in this recent case claimed that his co-workers made numerous age related comments to him over the course of several months, such as calling him “old man” and “grandpa.” The employee argued that these age related comments led the employer to fire him. Agents know that the EEOC is very strict when it comes to age discrimination and all too often employers land in hot water due to comments or actions that may seem harmless. But how did this particular case play out and how can it help you keep your clients informed?

You may think that you know exactly where this case is going. The employer loses the case and has to pay out, right? Actually, the court ended up ruling in favor of the employer, and here’s why. The court stated that the comments made to the employee are not direct evidence of discrimination because none of these comments were made by workplace leaders but by other employees. As such, these remarks can’t be traced back to the employer’s decision to fire the plaintiff. The former employee did insist that a supervisor referred to him as “old man” several times over the course of eight months, but the court determined that this supervisor was not part of the decision making when it came time to terminate the plaintiff.

Of course, age related comments can lead to a hostile workplace environment, and agents need to communicate this clearly to their clients. This ruling only shows that the employer didn’t actually take the plaintiff’s age into account when they decided to terminate him despite other lower level staff making comments about his age. With twenty comments made over the course of several months, the situation wasn’t pervasive enough in the court’s eyes this time. But it is always better to be safe than sorry when it comes to the EEOC.

Though the former employee obviously took offense to these comments about his age, his co-workers may not have meant anything more than a little joking and teasing. But even if there were no hard feelings behind the words, intent doesn’t matter when it comes to remarks that touch upon things that are protected by the EEOC. Above all, employers and business owners need to remember that intent is not important here. What is important is how these comments, whether ageist or sexist or racist, are received. Agents can help their clients in this regard by reminding everyone that comments regarding certain protected qualities should be avoided, even if they are made in jest.