Nondiscrimination ‘should start at the top,’ EEOC advises

An employer will pay $145,000 to settle allegations that the business owner told an employee to retire and referenced “old-timers disease,” according to a Feb. 14 announcement from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The alleged comments also prompted federal officials to tell employers that nondiscrimination starts at the top.

The employee worked at Pete’s Car Smart, a dealership based in Amarillo, Texas, for nearly 18 years, according to EEOC. After the employee underwent bypass heart surgery, the owner told the employee he felt she couldn’t perform the job anymore, the commission alleged in a lawsuit. If she didn’t retire, she would be fired, he said; he also made comments about her gray hair and “old-timers disease” and told her in a disparaging tone that she was old enough to be his mother, EEOC said.

The parties agreed to the monetary settlement and the employer also agreed to create and distribute new protocols for requesting reasonable accommodations and reporting discrimination. It also will train all employees annually on those protocols as well as employment discrimination laws, and the owner also will participate in a third-party training.

In announcing the settlement, an EEOC official reminded employers that compliance can start with leadership. “Effective messaging to staff that promotes a non-discriminatory work environment should start at the top,” Regional Attorney Robert Canino said in a statement. “Acknowledging the value of an employee who has given almost 20 years of service to the job is the proper approach to a genuine assessment — as opposed to engaging in unlawful provocations and putting pressure on the employee to retire because of negative stereotypes about age or health.”

Canino’s advice echoed that of diversity and inclusion experts. Inclusion starts at the top, Amazon Web Service’s then-global head of inclusion, diversity and equity wrote in an op-ed for HR Dive last year. Executives must make time for and engage with DEI initiatives to show employees that an employer’s DEI commitments are not just lip service, she wrote.