The Truth Shall Set You Free, But Fib and You May Fail

August 15, 2000

Honesty has always been the best policy. Recently, the United States Supreme Court decided a case that emphasized that “rule” and issued a decision that will probably have a significant influence upon every discrimination case that will follow. The case is Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc., and the important issue in Reeves is what “kind and amount of evidence” is necessary for an employer to prevail in a discrimination suit based on age.

Reeves involved a 57-year-old employee of a company that manufactured toilet seats and covers. Mr. Roger Reeves spent 40 years in this company, but in 1995, production was low and Mr. Reeves was terminated because of his “failure to maintain accurate attendance records.” Mr. Reeves brought suit claiming that he was truly terminated because of his age, in violation of the Age Discrimination In Employment Act of 1967. The jury did not believe that the company was truthful in the reason given for firing Reeves and granted judgment in his favor.

The Supreme Court held that a plaintiff might succeed if the employer’s reason for termination is not believed. Why? The Court explained that once the employer’s justification for firing has been eliminated, the discrimination may well be the most likely alternative, especially since the employer is in the best position to put forth the actual reason for its decision. Therefore, a jury can infer discrimination when a plaintiff proves that the reason given by the employer for discharge is not true.

This decision puts employers in a position of losing cases involving allegations of discrimination even where none exists simply because the reason given for termination is not believed. What is the lesson to be learned? Employers are in the best position to explain the reason for their actions. Be direct and up front with employees about the reason for termination.

For example, if they are being terminated for failure to make a certain required quota, then tell them so instead of “softening the blow” with the “it’s not you, it’s us” speech. Have documentation to support your reasons. Then, you will truly have a reason for termination that cannot be “disproved”. Honesty, while not always the most popular or easiest policy to follow when terminating an employee, may just be the best policy to protect your company from losing a case of alleged discrimination.

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