EEOC Unearths Years of Intentional Age Discrimination within IBM

After a long investigation, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has revealed that IBM leaders had directed managers to replace older workers with younger ones. Between 2013 and 2018, nearly 86% of those considered for layoffs within the organization were older employees over the age of 40.

The investigation showed that older employees were typically laid off and told their skills were out of date, only for them to be re-hired as contract workers with lower pay and fewer benefits.

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IBM did participate in the Fair360, formerly DiversityInc Top 50 competition in 2016 — the last year the company appeared on any of Fair360, formerly DiversityInc’s lists.

The survey collects workforce data regarding:

  • Ethnicity
  • Gender
  • Sexual orientation
  • Physical and Mental Ability
  • Age

“While we collect data on the previously mentioned dimensions of diversity, we also ask questions about Leadership Accountability,” Fair360, formerly DiversityInc CEO Carolynn Johnson said. “It is the responsibility of leaders at the Board and ELT level to protect all employees and ensure that they are treated equally. After 20 years of IBM being recognized as a best-in-class for diversity, inclusion and fairness, we are witnessing first-hand how things change when there is an absolute failure in leadership and accountability.”

ProPublica found that IBM:

    • Denied older workers information the law says they need in order to decide whether they’ve been victims of age bias and required them to sign away the right to go to court or join with others to seek redress.
    • Targeted people for layoffs and firings with techniques that tilted against older workers, even when the company rated them high performers. In some instances, the money saved from the departures went toward hiring younger replacements.
    • Converted job cuts into retirements and took steps to boost resignations and firings. The moves reduced the number of employees counted as layoffs, where high numbers can trigger public disclosure requirements.
    • Encouraged employees targeted for layoff to apply for other IBM positions, while quietly advising managers not to hire them and requiring many of the workers to train their replacements.
    • Told some older employees being laid off that their skills were out of date, but then brought them back as contract workers, often for the same work at lower pay and fewer benefits.

In recent years, older workers throughout the workforce have been increasingly calling attention to the ageism they experience. For example, a Deloitte Australia partner announced in August 2020 that he was suing the firm for age discrimination after he was allegedly asked to leave the company at age 62. In 2019, Google settled an age discrimination suit for $11 million after 227 people accused the company of systemically discriminating against applicants who were over the age of 40. That same year, a jury awarded a former Los Angeles Times sports columnist $15.4 million after he was demoted from columnist to writer in 2013 because of his age and health conditions.

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Forbes contributor Sheila Callahan, the executive director of the Age Equity Alliance, wrote that ageism has become the “most accepted ‘ism’” in the workplace. However, since aging ultimately impacts everyone, creating an age-inclusive environment is an H.R. imperative. In 2015, PwC’s (a Fair360, formerly DiversityInc Hall of Fame company)18th annual Global CEO Survey found that only 8% of firms that took part in the survey and had diversity and inclusion strategies in place also included aging within those strategies.

And the potential for age-related discrimination can only continue to grow. Nearly 18% of the working population in the U.S. is 65 and older, according to a PwC report, and that number is increasing every year.

In order to retain older employees, PwC recommends upskilling — training professionals to adapt new competencies as technologies develop and industry needs change. However, it also found that CEOs in regions with more mature talent reported less progress in establishing upskilling programs.

The payoff for programs that succeed is worth the challenge. According to the PwC report, “Across the board, organizations that have made the most progress in upskilling are achieving better business outcomes, including a stronger corporate culture, higher workforce productivity, greater business growth, improved talent acquisition and retention, greater innovation and reduced skills gaps and mismatches.”