Human Resources News & Insights

Guarding against age bias claims — both real and fake

Without thinking, interviewers can make comments or ask questions that convince unsuccessful job applicants they were rejected out of illegal bias. Then it’s up to HR to clean up the mess.

In one recent case, a 61-year-old man applied for a supervisory position. His resume met the minimum requirements, so the company brought him in for an interview.

However, the interviewers didn’t think he was a good fit for the company’s management team. Despite his lengthy technical experience, he had spent very little time supervising employees.

Also, he spoke negatively about people he’d worked with previously and “came on a little bit strong” when answering questions about how he’d handle certain management scenarios. He didn’t get the job.

He sued, claiming he was rejected because of his age. His evidence?

Allegedly, one of the interviews asked him “out of the blue” how old he was and how long he planned on working before retirement. (The interviewer denied asking those questions.)

According to the applicant, the reasons the company gave for not hiring him were just a cover for age bias.

Who won the case?

Fortunately for the company, the court didn’t buy his argument. Even if the age-related questions were asked, it didn’t necessarily mean the decision was biased.

The company articulated several reasons the applicant wasn’t hired, based on his experience and his behavior during the interview. The company’s evidence included e-mails sent between the decision makers discussing those problems.

That was enough for the court to rule that age wasn’t a factor and to throw the case out.

Interviewer’s questions can still be dangerous

Does this mean hiring managers are free to ask candidates questions about age, race, sex, disabilities and other protected categories?

Of course not.

The company won, but the case still shows the danger of stray remarks by interviewers. If it weren’t for the alleged aged-based questions, the company wouldn’t have been dragged into court in the first place. And other employers in the same boat haven’t been as fortunate.

What the decision does show is that by keeping strong documentation that all hiring decisions were based on job-related criteria, companies can stay off the hook even when a candidate interprets an interviewer’s comments as biased.

Cite: EEOC v. Delta Chemical Corp.

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