An over-50 employee refuses to sign a document saying she made a mistake that cost the company money. After she’s fired, she sues for age bias. Did she win?
Read the dramatized version of this real-life case and see if you can determine the outcome.
“Who is Betsy Swaggert, and why is she suing us for age bias?” asked VP Greg Mendez.
HR supervisor Zach Wharton motioned for Greg to close the door to her office and take a seat.
“Betsy was an employee here for 20 years,” said Zach, “but she made a major blunder recently that cost us a lot of money. And it was an easily preventable blunder, at that.
“Her manager and I agreed she should be disciplined, but when we brought her into my office to sign the disciplinary letter, she refused,” added Zach.
“Why?” asked Greg.
“She said it was like signing her own death warrant,” said Zach. “It would ‘give us a reason to fire her down the line’ because we were ‘looking to unload her large salary and benefits.’
“I told her that signing the letter wouldn’t get her fired – but not signing it would.”
“So she signed?” asked Greg.
“No,” said Zach. “She refused to acknowledge her mistake.
“Not signing the letter was akin to abandoning her job, in our eyes,” Zach went on. “We let her go.”
“Well,” said Greg, “now she’s claiming we treated younger staffers differently than her. She says two younger staffers also made similar mistakes but weren’t disciplined.”
Did Zach’s company win?
No, the company lost its bid to have the case dismissed.
The court said the staff member presented enough evidence that the decision to fire her could have been based on her age.
The company argued Betsy technically never suffered an adverse employment action because she left voluntarily. And with no adverse action, there could be no bias.
In the firm’s view, not signing the disciplinary letter was the same as voluntarily abandoning her job.
But the court found that logic pretty slim.
The court pointed to evidence like the fact that two younger staffers weren’t disciplined for similar mistakes as evidence that age bias may have existed.
Analysis: Don’t paint them into a corner
This case is a clear example of why managers and supervisors should avoid creating ultimatum-style situations that essentially paint an employee into a corner.
Here, the court ruled the employee never really had a viable option — she thought she’d be fired if she signed the document, and the company threatened to fire her if she didn’t. Thus, the court said, she wasn’t in a position to do anything “voluntarily” — including abandoning her job.
Better solution: Add a “refused to sign” line that both you and your manager can initial in cases like this.
Cite: Apau v. Printpack, Inc.