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Amid Accusations of Age Bias, IBM Winds Down a Push for Millennial Workers

[Editor's note: today's post, by reporters at ProPublica, updates a prior post about corporate hiring. A data breach in 2007 at IBM resulted in the creation of this blog. Today's post is reprinted with permission.]

By Peter Gosselin and Ariana Tobin, ProPublica

IBM logo Faced with a mounting pile of lawsuits accusing it of age discrimination — the latest, a class action, was filed this week in federal district court in New York — tech giant IBM appears to be winding down its Millennial Corps, an internal network of young employees that’s been cited in several legal complaints as evidence of the company’s bias toward younger workers.

ProPublica reported in March that IBM, which had annual revenue of $79 billion in 2017, had ousted an estimated 20,000 U.S. employees ages 40 or older in the past five years, in some instances using money saved from the departures to hire young replacements to, in the words of an internal company document, “correct seniority mix.”

IBM deployed several strategies to attract younger workers, establishing a digital platform catering to millennials, a blog called “The Millennial Experience,” a Twitter account, @IBMillennial, as well as creating the Millennial Corps, whose members company executives pledged to consult about major business moves. The Corps was featured in a 2016 FastCompany piece titled “These Millennials Have Become the Top Decision Makers at IBM.”

But company sources said this week that the internal millennial platform has had almost no entries in recent months and the only posting on the blog dates from at least a year ago. There have been no recent tweets from @IBMillennial. At least one of the Millennial Corps founders quoted in the FastCompany story about the network has left the company, as have several of those listed as Millennial Corps “ambassadors” on the internal platform.

An IBM spokesman did not respond to questions on the status of the Millennial Corps.

The class action was filed Monday on behalf of three former IBM employees who say the company discriminated against them based on their age by ousting them from their jobs and refusing to hire them for other slots. The complaint cites ProPublica’s article extensively in accusing IBM of “systematically laying off older employees in order to build a younger workforce.” The suit was filed by Boston lawyer Shannon Liss-Riordan, who has represented workers against such tech behemoths as Amazon, Google and Uber.

IBM responded to the filing by saying it has done nothing wrong in retooling its workforce to meet the challenges of an evolving tech landscape.

“Changes in our workforce are about skills, not age,” company spokesman Edward Barbini said in a statement. “In fact, since 2010 there is no difference in the age of our U.S. workforce.”

This week’s class action suit follows lawsuits filed against IBM on behalf of individuals in California, Georgia and Texas, as well as a nationwide investigation of age bias at the company by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which administers the nation’s workplace anti-discrimination laws.

The Texas case, filed by 60-year-old former sales executive Jonathan Langley, accuses the company of laying him off after 24 years because of his age. In court papers, he said IBM “devoted countless millions of dollars to its effort to rebrand as a hip, Millennial-centric tech company” by, among other things, establishing the Millennial Corps.

An IBM spokesman has said the company will defend the Langley case vigorously and complies with all applicable laws.

The new class-action complaint is somewhat narrower than it at first appears, a reflection of complexities in the laws against age discrimination and legal protections IBM has erected for itself.

At the moment, the complaint seeks the right to represent older ex-IBM employees in just two states, California and North Carolina. Ex-employees in other states would have to sign up, or affirmatively opt in, to be covered. Liss-Riordan said in an email that individuals from other could be added to the class if other plaintiffs emerge.

In addition, the class action filed this week only seeks to represent ex-IBM employees who did not sign the company’s separation agreement when they were ousted.

ProPublica reported in March that IBM regularly denies older workers being laid off information that federal law says they’re entitled to in order to decide whether they have been victims of age bias. It does so by making severance pay contingent on departing employees signing separation agreements in which they give up their right to sue, and can then only pursue age claims through secret, individual arbitration.

Even with these limits on potential plaintiffs, experts on employment said the legal actions could have a substantial effect on IBM.

“If a judge approves class-action status, or any of the age-discrimination lawsuits filed against IBM recently proceed, the company is going to face a costly fight defending its treatment of older workers,” said Jeffrey Young, an Augusta, Maine, lawyer who has successfully sued major employers for age bias but isn’t representing any of the plaintiffs in the IBM cases.

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