When training interviewers on legal compliance in hiring, employers often coach their employees to avoid phrases that can be interpreted as referring to the applicant’s age. For example, the EEOC sometimes views claims that an applicant appears resistant to technology as code for saying they are too old to adapt to changes. Earlier this month, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals refused to extend this reasoning to a situation where a younger applicant was praised for potential longevity with the company.
In Wrolstad v. CUNA Mut. Ins. Society, the 52-year old plaintiff was displaced due to a corporate reorganization. When he applied for a vacant internal position, that job was given to a 23-year-old external hire. The plaintiff filed suit, claiming age discrimination. As support for his claim, the plaintiff noted that the job screener’s notes stated that the younger applicant would stay with the company for many years.
The Seventh Circuit affirmed dismissal of the claim on summary judgment. The court said that the longevity comment was not evidence of age bias. Instead, the comment reflected that particular applicant’s repeated attempts to obtain employment with the company. The court also noted legitimate business reasons for rejecting the plaintiff’s application, including the fact that his salary request was at the very top end of the range for that job.
Employers should continue to caution job screeners about legitimate and potentially illegal lines of inquiry to applicants. However, federal courts generally reject the use of “code” words as the sole evidence of discriminatory intent by the employer.