Succession Planning Not Discriminatory

By Bill Wright

A federal district court has ruled that instructing an HR Director to “adapt to bring out the best in our new and younger employees” was not evidence of age-based harassment. Vontlintel v. Eagle Comm., Inc. No. 5:14-cv-04125-KHV (D. Kan. December 9, 2016). The company had engaged in succession planning and, in that context, several senior managers had commented that the company needed to hire younger employees to take over for them. The COO summarized those comments in meetings. The company also selected another (younger) employee to begin learning various HR tasks for the growing company.  In assigning the current HR Director to “perform more like a leader and manager” and to train the new HR Assistant, the COO commented that the HR Director should work with the “new and younger employees.”  The court ruled that, because the context of the comment was succession planning, the use of “younger,” in the quoted comment and several other succession-related discussions, did not create an issue of fact on the HR Director’s claim of age-based hostile work environment.

Context matters. Instructing an employee to manage and to engage in succession-related training might justify a wide set of discussions about availability for continuing work and the circumstances of employment. But specificity helps. The court thought the COO should have just used the HR Assistant’s name.