- Athletic directors at Indiana University South Bend did not discriminate against an older applicant when a younger person was chosen to fill an open role, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled (Reinebold v. Bruce and Norris, No. 21-2092 (7th Cir., Nov. 19, 2021)).
- The plaintiff argued that a lower court erred in granting summary judgment to the two athletic directors because it incorrectly weighed his evidence of age discrimination. The evidence highlighted an interviewer's notes, which included a comment that the plaintiff was "looking for a retirement job."
- The plaintiff argued that the comment showed the hiring committee's attention to his age. The 7th Circuit disagreed. The comment about retirement was one of many by the interviewer, the court noted. The interviewer also indicated that the applicant lacked a "plan to develop kids" and "a well thought philosophy." Other comments revealed why the plaintiff was rejected: his poor interview performance — not his age.
The fact pattern of the case adds detail to the court's decision. It also clarifies why hiring managers must be careful when they put their thoughts about candidates in writing.
The 56-year-old plaintiff applied for the role of head baseball coach along with 93 others. An eight-person hiring committee, including the two athletic directors named in the lawsuit, selected the plaintiff and 10 other applicants to interview by phone.
The plaintiff failed the phone interview. One interviewer noted that the conversation "was one of the worst interviews he had ever experienced," according to court documents. Following the phone interviews, the hiring committee spoke with a few candidates in person and ultimately selected a 31-year-old applicant. The plaintiff sued, claiming age discrimination.
The court's analysis featured interview notes that may give HR practitioners a headache. HR practitioners are generally drilled on the importance of prioritizing documentation, from hiring notes and job descriptions to discipline details and termination decisions. But documentation can be dangerous if it memorializes discriminatory action.
Documentation can create problems for employers even when it's not outright evidence of discrimination. A manager's vague feedback, for example, could demonstrate their inability to coach, one HR leader said at a 2019 conference. Similarly, absolute expressions using words like "always" and "never" can land employers in trouble, she said.