Revenge of the Angry Hippos

angry hippoWe’ve all heard the saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Well, a few weeks ago employees at the Ohio State University found their words coming back to hurt them and their employer in a big way.

Julianne Taaffe (62) and Kathryn Moon (67) worked for OSU since 1983 in the university’s English as a Second Language (ESL) program. They recently settled a complaint filed with the EEOC, alleging that they had been victims of harassment based on their age. The women claim that between 2009 and 2014 they, and other more-senior members of the program’s staff, were treated worse than their younger counterparts by a new program director and his successor.

The new director overlooked older workers when it came to promotions. He accidentally cc’d one of his colleagues on an email where he called workers over 50 “change-averse” and compared working with them to “herding hippos”—a particularly unflattering analogy among all of the inappropriate things he could have come up with . . .

This new director also gave younger workers better offices and resources. According to the New York Times, “older instructors lost their offices and, reassigned to a cramped open space, shared an insufficient number of computers even as younger colleagues kept their offices and desktops.”

His successor was no better. He was overheard calling older employees “millstones” and “dead wood.” Moon believed the comments were made to intentionally make herself and other older employees feel uncomfortable and want to leave; a concept known as constructive discharge. Ouch.

But that is what they eventually did. Moon and Taaffe retired early in 2014, and more than 20 of their colleagues were forced out when their positions were either eliminated or changed so that they were compensated at a lower salary. When Taaffe lodged an internal complaint, no action came from the investigation.

Age discrimination, or unfair treatment of employees who are 40 years or older, is prohibited under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). The EEOC says that discrimination can occur in any aspect of work life, “including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, benefits, and any other term or condition of employment.”

The EEOC found, in this case, that there was reasonable cause to believe that Moon and Taaffe, as well as other older workers, had been subjected to discrimination based on their age. Ohio State University denies that it acted unlawfully, but it did reach a settlement with the employees at issue. They will both receive back pay and retroactive benefits (totaling almost half a million dollars), $325,000 in attorneys’ fees, and a promise that OSU will change its policies to better recognize and prevent instances of age discrimination.

What lessons can the average—and hopefully better behaved!—manager learn from this scenario? First, words hurt, and employees who are targeted by even well-meaning jokes have a long memory for insult.  We conduct a lot of anti-discrimination and anti-harassment training, and invariably the question we receive is “does this mean I can never joke around with my colleagues?”  Of course that’s not the law.  But we should all remember that we work in professional environments, and jokes about protected characteristics, including age, are not appropriate.  So, if we could ask one thing of managers and subordinates alike, it’s to raise the bar on professional workplace interactions.  Show caring and interest in your coworkers through kindness, not derogatory jokes.  Ask about their friends, their families, their interests, don’t mock age, race, religion, national origin, or otherwise perpetuate stereotypes.  It is easy to image how both sides of the OSU matter thought they were in the right but remember, when it comes to workplace harassment, it’s the impact, and not the intent, that drives a determination as to whether an employer has engaged in misconduct.