In a press release issued yesterday, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reports that, in its fiscal year 2008 (October 1, 2007 – September 30, 2008), there was a 15 percent increase in the number of employment discrimination charges filed against employers. The 95,402 charges filed are more than the number of charges filed in any other one-year period in the history of the agency. The greatest percentage increase was in age discrimination charges, up 28.7 percent from the previous year. Sex discrimination charges were up 14 percent, and race charges were up 11.2 percent. There was a smaller percentage increase in disability charges (9.7 percent), but with the recently-passed amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers will likely see a significant increase in disability charges in fiscal year 2009.

The steep increase in discrimination charges was no doubt fueled, in part, by job losses in the beginning stages of the economic recession. The continued down-turn of the economy in the last quarter of 2008 and early months of 2009 makes it almost certain that the number of discrimination charges will continue to increase.

So what does all of this mean for you as an employer? To begin, it is far more likely that employers will be sued or will face discrimination charges as employees are laid off or face other adverse employment actions. An economic reduction-in-force will, very possibly, generate charges or lawsuits. All too often, employers do not exercise the care needed with the decision-making leading up to a reduction-in-force. Careful attention to the process and documentation in the early stages, however, can make legal challenges less likely to occur and can make those that are filed more easy to defend. 

As we’ve discussed before, employers should develop and document a sequential approach from the very earliest stages of the decision-making leading up to a reduction-in-force. Key steps in that approach include:

  • Reorganizing or eliminating job duties;
  • Selecting the employees best-qualified to perform remaining job duties;
  • Establishing criteria for termination or lay-off decisions that are based on legitimate business reasons;
  • Documenting the selection criteria, procedure, and decisions;
  • Conducting a statistical review to identify any disproportionate impact on protected class employees and, if a disproportionate impact is shown, carefully reviewing decisions to assure that they are supported by legitimate business considerations.

After these steps have been taken, the company should consider payment of severance to and securing signed release agreements from those who are terminated. It is a mistake, though, to presume that all terminated employees offered severance will sign release agreements and therefore give short shrift to the initial decision-making and documentation steps. All it takes is one terminated employee who refuses to sign a release and, instead, files a charge or a lawsuit to negate the savings of the reduction-in-force through the cost of defense, settlement, or an adverse judgment.

Even if your company is not currently in a reduction-in-force mode, careful attention to all employment decisions is essential to reduce the risk of discrimination charges. Things like frank and candid communication in performance reviews and active involvement by human resource personnel in all adverse employment actions can make it far easier to defend later decisions to terminate in a reduction-in-force.