Can Requesting Certain Experience Levels Expose You to Liability for Age Discrimination?
By: Tami Z. Hannon, Esq.
We’ve all seen the ads – “seeking a candidate with 5 – 7 years of experience” or “seeking entry level candidates.” But at some point do these ads put you and your company at risk for a claim of age discrimination? That was just the issue recently addressed by Ohio’s Tenth District Court of Appeals in the case of Ceglia v. Youngstown State University when the Court was called upon to determine whether a request for a “mid-career level” applicant was code for age discrimination.
In that case, Youngstown State sought an applicant for a full-time instructor position. The plaintiff, who had over 20 years of experience, applied for the position. When he was not interviewed or selected for the position, the plaintiff asked why. He was told that the University was looking for “mid-career” applicants and not “someone who had been around for a long time.” Neither of these requirements was expressly stated in the job posting. Instead, the University chose to hire a 44-year old applicant who had little prior teaching experience.
The plaintiff sued alleging age discrimination. The Court of Claims dismissed the case, finding that the search committee had a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for not offering the position to the plaintiff in light of alleged past performance issues. The plaintiff appealed. The Tenth District Court of Appeals reversed the decision, finding that it was a question for the jury as to whether “mid-career level” and not wanting “someone who had been around for a long time” was actually code for age discrimination.
In addressing these issues, the Court reasoned that these comments created an inference that the Committee denied the applicant the position because of his age, despite the Committee’s statements that they were referring to career experience. Further troubling to the Court was the fact that the position was awarded to someone who was NOT a mid-career level individual. While the Court did not ultimately determine whether there was in fact discrimination, the Court found that there was enough evidence to present the case to a jury. In other words, the court was not willing to dismiss the case without going to a full trial.
So what can you do to protect yourself from similar claims?
- Clearly state what qualifications are being sought in the job posting. Make certain any specified qualifications are related to the position being sought and the needs of the organization.
- Focus on the needs of the position, not the qualifications of the candidate – especially qualifications that can directly relate to the age of a candidate. For example, rather than “mid-career level” applicant, use phrases such as “entry-level position” or “mid-level position” to refer to the job level.
- Interview applicants that fit within the parameters of the stated requirements and qualifications for your job. If you are listing a requirement in your posting, the individuals interviewed and selected should fit within those requirements.
In light of developing and changing laws, it is always a good idea to constantly review hiring procedures. If you have any questions or concerns about your practices or policies, please contact MRR and we would be happy to review those with you.
For questions or more information on “Long Term Experience Need Not Apply!,” contact:
Tami Z. Hannon – MRR Cleveland