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February 02, 2007
Was Age a Factor in This Promotion Decision?

A veteran Texas employee trained to perform a higher-level job watched her long-awaited promotion go to a considerably younger colleague. The global chemical company that employed them both had two reasons for choosing the younger woman, which it said were legitimate and unbiased. But judges weren't so sure.

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What happened. Hazel Conner joined Celanese Ltd. in 1977, working there for nearly 30 years before she retired. In 2001, the company needed to downsize, so an early retirement package was offered and some departments were dissolved. Connor's boss, the company's environmental chemist, accepted the offer. Celanese decided to reorganize her duties, distributing them among three other employees rather than replacing her. One of the new positions was titled environmental specialist--a higher level with better working hours than Conner's lab analyst job.

The position was given to an employee 11 years younger than Conner, who had to be trained for 9 months before she could begin to perform her responsibilities. And, she still often needed Conner's help and advice, because she had no lab experience. Conner sued under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), but a judge in federal district court accepted Celanese's reasons for promoting the other woman and dismissed Conner's charge. She appealed to the 5th Circuit, which covers Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.

What the court said. Celanese managers testified that one reason for promoting the younger woman was that she would have lost her job entirely otherwise, because her old department, traffic, was being shut down. The second reason, they asserted, was that Conner's department was shrinking, and her experience and expertise in her lab analyst job were crucial to retain, and that she had no experience in traffic. But other testimony revealed that even though the younger woman had come from the traffic department, she needed a special training course in traffic duties after her long training in laboratory tasks. Had Celanese promoted Conner, lab training would not have been necessary, and she, too, could have taken the traffic course.

Appellate judges therefore ruled that because Conner was so clearly better qualified for the new job, a jury could find that she experienced age discrimination. So her case will go back to the lower court for trial. Conner v. Celanese, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, No. 05-41487 (11/29/06).

Point to remember: It's possible that Celanese managers were not biased against Conner because of her age. But they may be found liable anyway, because for whatever reasons, they rejected a better-qualified candidate for promotion.

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