Does An Employee Figure Out Why She Was Fired?
It is often hard to determine exactly why an employee was
fired. Because most jobs in Arizona fall into the category of at-will
employment, employers are free to fire their employees for just about
anything. In fact, the employer doesnt even need to have a reason. Although
these laws do offer some protections to employees, it can be puzzling and
emotionally taxing for an employee to try to figure out what led to her firing.
Workers Are Especially At Risk When Terminated
For many fired employees, the best option is to simply find a
new job and get back to work as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, older
workers tend to face a long, uphill battle in finding a new job. (See, e.g., For Older Workers, A Longer
Job Search, Catherine Rampell, New York
Times, March 5, 2010). When these employees find that they are having
difficulty finding new work at their age, it often leads them to question
whether their age was also the reason they got fired in the first place.
Age Discrimination In Employment Act Protects Workers 40 And Older
In response to the very real challenges faced by unemployed
older workers, Congress enacted the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)
which generally makes it illegal for an employer to discriminate against an
employee or potential employee because of that persons agebut only if the
person is forty or older. [See, e.g.,
29 U.S.C. 623(a) & 631(a)]. In addition, the ADEA doesnt offer blanket
protections to those over fortyit applies only when an older worker is
discriminated against in favor of a younger worker. See General Dynamics Land Systems, Inc. v. Cline, 540 U.S. 581, 590
(S.Ct. 2000). For example, if a forty-five year old employee is fired so that a
fifty-five year old can keep his job, then the ADEA has not been violated. Even
though the forty-five year old falls within the protected age group, the fact
that it was someone much older who benefitted from the discrimination means
that it was not illegal.
To Determining If An Employee Was Fired Because Of Her Age
So what is a recently fired older worker supposed to do? It
is rare for a supervisor or human resources department to come right out and
say, Youre getting fired because we like young people better. Occasionally,
an employer might make an offhand comment to an older worker such as, I love
these young guysthey have so much energy. A single comment like this may not
mean much, but a pattern of these types of comments over time can add up to a
work environment where older workers feel undervalued and underappreciated. If
the older worker then ends up getting fired, these comments take on additional
significanceindicating that the younger workers were favored at the expense of
the older workers.
However, the clues to age discrimination are usually more
subtle than that. Certain questions can help an employee figure out whether his
age was the reason for his termination. For example, what is the overall age
range of the company or department where the fired employee worked? Was he the
only employee over forty? Is almost everybody else in the department
substantially younger than him? Is it rare for a new employee over forty to be
hired? If the answers to these questions indicate that there is a company
culture that favors young workers over older workers, then the fired older employee
may, indeed, have a valid claim for age discrimination.
In the end, it is rare for a fired employee to know with
certainty that she was fired because of her age. A consultation with a wrongful
termination lawyer can help the employee figure out whether there is a valid
claim for age discrimination, and if so, what are her options for pursuing that
Rex A. Christensen
practices employment discrimination law in Gilbert, Arizona.
He can be reached at
article does not constitute, and should not be considered, legal advice, and
you should consult with an attorney regarding your own specific legal matters.
The existence of this article or your reading of it does not create an
attorney-client relationship. Neither the Christensen Law Firm nor any of its
attorneys may represent you without first establishing that doing so will not create
a conflict of interest.
Rex A. Christensen is licensed to practice law in