March 30, 2023

Asking, “When Will You Retire?” Can Backfire

In a two-month period during which the company’s purchasing agent turned 65, the employee’s supervisor and several managers asked her, “when are you going to retire;” “why don’t you retire at 65;” and “what is the reason you are not retiring?”

OK, so you might be thinking, “So what?” Those are innocuous, well-intended remarks or just conversational comments.  Me, too. Now add, three months later, the employee was told her position was being abolished due to “economic uncertainty” and she was fired the same day.

OK, so now you might be thinking that things change and that could be true. Me, too. Now add, the next month the company hired a new purchasing agent. He was 39 years old. He had the same job duties as the previous purchasing agent.

OK, so you might be thinking, “Hmmm…” I did, too, and so did the U.S. EEOC, which filed a lawsuit alleging the employer violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Putting it all together, the EEOC claims the employer’s stated reasons for discharging the employee were false or pretextual; such conduct by the employer was “willful;” and the employer fired her because of her age in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

Lessons Learned: While we might not be able to control what coworkers say to one another, we can and need to control what supervisors, managers, and business owners say to employees. When a manager speaks, the manager’s words may become the words of the employer. When a manager makes comments based on age, race, sex, or any other protected status, they can infer a discriminatory motive or bias.  Conversations about an employee’s prospective retirement are best had by a human resources representative, someone outside the employee’s chain of command.