What could go wrong when the boss’s son asks that question of, David, a nearly-40-year employee? Oh, right, David got laid off a week later.
Age discrimination? Well, let’s see…
We know that when an employer inquires about an employee’s retirement plans — without bringing up age — it should be able to avoid liability. But, repeated inquiries about a plaintiff’s intention to retire could suggest an age-related impetus for his eventual firing.
What about one retirement question + one age reference + adverse employment action one week later?
First, the comment specifically referenced Hawthorne’s age and was therefore age related. Second, the comment preceded Hawthorne’s termination by one week, making it sufficiently proximate in time to the termination. Third, Allen Fielder, the company’s vice-president, wrote and signed the termination notice that ended Hawthorne’s employment just one week after making the comment about Hawthorne’s age, and therefore had authority over the employment decision. Finally, a reference to retirement at Hawthorne’s age is related to his termination, given that the termination immediately followed Hawthorne’s refusal to agree to retire.
Easy lesson here: if you plan to let some retire on their own timetable, you can ask them for that timetable to plan for the transition. However, if you plan to lay off an older employee, best not to ask them about their retirement plans immediately beforehand.