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In January 2015, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a federal lawsuit in Miami, Florida, against Seasons 52, a national restaurant chain.  The EEOC alleged Seasons 52 discriminated against older job applicants at 35 of its restaurants nationwide.

During the litigation, the EEOC presented testimony from over 135 applicants that Seasons 52’s hiring managers inquired about their age, and made comments such as, “Seasons 52 girls are younger and fresh,” “We are really looking for someone younger,” and “Seasons 52 hires young people.” The EEOC also alleged that interviewers told rejected applicants they are “too experienced,” which is a seemingly age-neutral statement.

The EEOC further alleged that Seasons 52’s rate of hiring applicants age 40 and older was significantly lower than the rate of hire among younger candidates.

Earlier this month, the EEOC announced that Seasons 52 agreed to settle the case. As part of the settlement, Seasons 52 will pay $2.85 million in monetary relief.  Although the settlement is not an admission of liability by Seasons 52, the company also agreed to having an injunction entered prohibiting future age discrimination by the company.

In addition, the settlement provides that Seasons 52 will make significant changes to its recruiting and hiring processes to prevent future discrimination. Among other things, the company must provide training to its managers and staff about non-discrimination, and post pictures of “age-diverse staff on social media,” according to the EEOC’s press release.

During the settlement’s three-year term, an independent compliance monitor has been appointed, at Seasons 52’s expense, to oversee compliance with the settlement provisions, including receiving and investigating any hiring complaints.

The Takeaway: Managers are the first defense when it comes to avoiding discrimination claims.  A well-trained manager must steer clear of comments and inquiries during recruiting and interviewing that can lead to age discrimination and other claims.  Managers must also recognize potential legal issues and know how to address them either directly, or through Human Resources, as appropriate.  Most importantly, managers set the tone for non-discrimination within the workplace. Finally, discussions with job applicants should be job-related and consistent with the needs of the business to avoid allegations of discriminatory hiring.  No applicant should be told they are too old to do a job.