HR Management & Compliance

Have You Trained Your Managers in What Not to Say?

Woods is a shareholder in the Greenville, South Carolina office of law firm Ogletree Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, PC. His remarks came at BLR®’s annual National Employment Law Update.

Seeking a Person ‘More Energetic’ than You

The Story: Klockner Pentaplast of America (KPA) employed 58-year-old Dean Inman as its VP Technology. When Michael Tubridy, the company’s president, terminated him after 17 years, he told Inman it was for failing to meet company expectations. Specifically, that Inman had refused to develop a plan to set measurable goals for his department, refused to support a salary freeze, and harassed the human resources staff regarding a change to the company’s health plan, among other things.

Inman, in contrast, said that Tubridy told him that he “did not fit the profile or model” of what potential buyers of the company look for in a technical leader and that KPA needed a “more energetic person” as leader of the technical department.

David Veasey, who was 45 years old, replaced Inman.

The trial court rejected Inman’s age discrimination claim, and he appealed. The Fourth Circuit found that he offered credible evidence to dispute KPA’s stated reason for his discharge: Inman had received bonuses every year, and was singled out for praise at a company meeting shortly he was fired. “[I]f Inman has evidence from which a jury could conclude that the real reason he was fired was his age,” the court reasoned, “the jury could also conclude that the deficiencies that KPA claimed existed in Inman’s work were exaggerated to cover up the age-based motivation for the termination.”

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The court also pointed to a meeting attended by Tubridy, in which a management consultant suggested that KPA enlist “young,” “energetic,” “future people.” Tubridy made notes during the meeting, which included the phrase “young, energ[etic].” The court reinstated Inman’s age bias claim.

The court record indicates that KPA had ample documented reasons for terminating Inman. Unfortunately, the unnecessary comments about Inman were enough to convince the court that the case should be heard.

We Want that ‘Midwestern Girl Look’

The Story: Shortly after Brenna Lewis started working for Heartland Inns of America, Lori Stifel, Lewis’ manager, received permission from Heartland’s Director of Operations, Barbara Cullinan, to offer Lewis a full-time “A shift” position.

After Cullinan saw Lewis working the front desk, Cullinan told Stifel that she was not sure Lewis was a “good fit” for the front desk. Cullinan stated that Lewis, who wore loose-fitting clothes, avoided makeup and had short hair, lacked the “Midwestern girl look.” Although the front desk job description in Heartland’s personnel manual did not mention appearance, Cullinan ordered Stifel to move Lewis back to the night shift. Stifel refused, citing the “phenomenal job” Lewis had been doing.

At the same time, Heartland informed its general managers that hiring for front desk positions would require a second interview. Cullinan notified Lewis that she would need a second interview to “confirm/endorse” her current position. Lewis protested, noting that other Heartland staff members had not been required to have a second interview. Three days later, Lewis was fired. In its termination letter, Heartland asserted that Lewis had “thwart[ed] the proposed interview procedure” and exhibited “host[ility] toward Heartland’s most recent policies.”

Lewis sued Heartland, alleging sex discrimination and retaliation. The trial judge granted summary judgment in favor of Heartland and Lewis appealed.

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Lewis argued that Heartland fired her “because her appearance did not comport with its preferred feminine stereotype” and not because of her job performance or qualifications.

The court pointed out that Lewis had a history of good performance at Heartland, and that one could infer that Heartland had a discriminatory motive to fire Lewis. As a result, the Eighth Circuit ruled that Lewis had presented sufficient evidence to proceed with her sex discrimination claim.

Bottom line: In both of these cases, what might be considered “stray remarks” by some courts were ground for going to trial in these courts. Your best defense? Train your managers.

In tomorrow’s Advisor, another of Stephen Woods’ teaching cases, plus some great news—you can receive a whole HR Library of online training to help with employment decisions.

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