Here’s a shocker out of Illinois: a federal district court held that a retail chain’s store manager calling a department head "Grandma" was evidence of age discrimination. In McDonald v. Best Buy Co., the plaintiff alleged she was demoted and forced out of her job because of her age in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). The defendant argued she was demoted because of her inability to effectively manage her subordinates.
The case hinged to a large degree on the fact that the plaintiff’s supervisor often referred to her as "Grandma," which the plaintiff argued was evidence of age discrimination. The defendant countered that because it is technically possible for a person under age 40 (and not protected by the ADEA) to be a grandmother, "Grandma" is not an age-related nickname. The court noted that while calling someone "Grandma" does not by itself violate the ADEA, it is certainly an age-related comment and does provide evidence of an ageist motive.
Here’s the lesson for employers: be careful of "cute" nicknames that could be discriminatory. There are endless cases where nicknames like "Grandma," "Honey," "Baby" and the like supported claims of discrimination. Calling an employee "Grandma" might sound endearing at the time, but in the context of a lawsuit, it will likely sound discriminatory.