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National restaurant chain Texas Roadhouse has agreed to pay $12 million to settle an age discrimination lawsuit brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967 protects workers ages 40 and older from workplace discrimination based on age. The EEOC alleged that Texas Roadhouse violated the ADEA by rebuffing older workers for front-of-the-house positions, such as server, host and bartender.
As part of the settlement, the restaurant chain agreed to change its recruiting and hiring practices.
"Notably, Texas Roadhouse did not admit any wrongdoing in its settlement," said Kimberly Hodges, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Memphis, Tenn. "However, from a prevention perspective, it is critical for employers to have robust policies and procedures in place that ensure older applicants are provided the same opportunities as younger ones."
She noted that employers also need to be diligent about treating older workers fairly after applicants become employees. "Employers should carefully examine policies regarding discipline, promotions, raises and benefits to ensure consistent treatment for both younger and older employees," she said.
[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: What commonly asked questions should not be on an employment application?]
Agreement Reached Before Retrial
The settlement was announced on March 31 after a four-week trial resulted in a hung jury. A retrial had been scheduled for May.
The settlement will provide monetary relief to workers ages 40 and older who applied to Texas Roadhouse for a front-of-the-house position between Jan. 1, 2007, and Dec. 31, 2014. Under the agreement, the restaurant chain will have to appoint a diversity director and a compliance monitor who will ensure that the terms of the agreement are met.
"The settlement was not an admission of guilt but rather a business decision," according to Travis Doster, the senior director of public relations for Texas Roadhouse. "After seven years of litigation, including a recent mistrial, we still faced a prospect of many more years of legal bills, trials and appeals."
Doster said the restaurant chain "is and always will be an equal opportunity employer."
"I am pleased to see this matter come to a mutually agreed-upon resolution," said EEOC Acting Chair Victoria Lipnic in a press statement. "As we mark the 50th anniversary of the [ADEA] this year, it is as important as ever to recognize the very real consequences of age discrimination and the need for job opportunities for older workers."
Key Points for Employers
"Applicants rarely know that they have been denied a job because of their age," said Mark Penze, one of the EEOC's lead trial attorneys for the case. He added, "When the [agency] uncovers such evidence, it will act aggressively and doggedly to remedy the violation."
So how can employers ensure their policies and practices are fair to older workers?
When hiring, employers should have a consistent process that treats older workers the same as other candidates, Hodges said. (Applicants of all races, genders and national origins should also be treated the same.)
"Managers and recruiters should be trained to conduct the hiring process with an eye solely upon hiring the best qualified candidate, irrespective of age," she said.
Employers should also take steps to ensure that only objective, age-neutral criteria and processes are used. "For example, employers should take a close look at recruiting materials, selection criteria, interview questions and interview scoring processes," Hodges noted. "All of these stages of the hiring process should be examined for language or requirements which might disproportionately impact older applicants."
Hiring managers should note that age discrimination issues can arise from vague references to age. "An interview question regarding whether a candidate would mind working under a younger supervisor or if a candidate had enough energy for long hours can lead to inferences of age bias," Hodges said.
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