A lengthy investigation by Mother Jones and Pro Publica alleges IBM targeted older employees with layoffs and forced retirement in order to bring in millennial workers. In a series of interviews with dozens of former employees, the report, released Thursday, alleges both a systematic shedding of employees over 40 and a preoccupation with hiring younger workers as the company pivoted towards social media, data analytics, and cloud-based services. In the past five years, Pro Publica estimates IBM has fired, laid off, or rushed retirement for 20,000 US employees over 40, representing almost 60 percent of all workers who’ve lost jobs at the company during that time.
“Age discrimination is an open secret like sexual harassment was until recently,” Victoria Lipnic, the acting chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, told Pro Publica.
The report alleges that IBM wanted to become a “younger” company by focusing on new technologies and hiring younger staff. In 2014, it emphasized a wholesale shift to “CAMS” technologies—cloud services, big data analytics, mobile, security, and social media. The report includes images from a fascinating slide presentation that presents the “millennial” as a young professional innately invested in the skills well suited for CAMS tech.
Millennials are “digitally native,” “authentic,” “innovative” and “design conscious.” This relates to IBM’s core operation. Somehow.
IBM allegedly targeted older employees with layoffs, pushed them to retire early, and judged them more harshly in reviews. While IBM denies these charges, both former employees and the report itself point to a rewording of legal documents that accompany layoffs and severances. To receive severance packages, employees must agree to private arbitration.
Mandated private arbitration means that, if an employee feels they were let go because of their age, they must file suit alone and confidentially. So even if there was a case to be made that IBM is systematically targeting older workers, each individual employee would have to prove it alone. Further, the cases are confidential, drastically reducing the information available to collect as evidence. Forced arbitration is entirely legal and widely practiced across Silicon Valley.
Many of the former employees that spoke on the record say they pursued new jobs either elsewhere within the company or in new tech fields. But only a small handful have apparently found jobs, with many saying age discrimination is widely practiced across the industry. In a statement to Pro Publica, a spokesperson said:
“We are proud of our company and our employees’ ability to reinvent themselves era after era, while always complying with the law. Our ability to do this is why we are the only tech company that has not only survived but thrived for more than 100 years.”
We’ve reached out to IBM for further comment.