- Comments about a 23-year-old applicant's potential for longevity at a particular company were linked to age-neutral reasons — enthusiasm and persistence — and were therefore not indicative of age bias, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled recently (Wrolstad v. CUNA Mutual Insurance Society, No. 17-1920 (7th Cir., Dec. 18, 2018)).
- The court rejected the discrimination and retaliation claims of the then 52-year-old plaintiff, whose position at the company had been eliminated and who was not hired for another position at the company.
- The plaintiff lacked the requisite skills for the new position and requested a salary of $55,000, which was above the range for the position, according to court documents. The 23-year-old who was hired, on the other hand, possessed relevant experience and requested a salary of $35,000, which was within the position's range.
While the court ruled in favor of the employer, the case highlights the importance of caution when presenting explanations that could be perceived as indicative of age bias. In this case, the screening interviewer wrote that the 23-year-old who eventually won the position would "inevitably stay with the company for many years to come."
The court noted that here the potential for longevity appeared to be linked to the applicant's enthusiasm and persistence — he had previously applied for another position with the company. The plaintiff pointed to a 2013 case from the 6th Circuit which concluded that concerns about longevity were merely a "proxy" for age. But the court responded that, in this case, the company had equated the new hire's longevity at the company with his enthusiasm and persistence, rather than his relatively young age.
Careful training of managers and interviewers is an important defense against age bias claims. Attorneys have warned employers to avoid language that can indicate age bias, and stating that someone has been hired for "longevity" may well be a phrase that employers wish to have hiring managers avoid.