New Model or Age Discrimination? IBM Hit With EEOC Lawsuit



Over its 117 years of existence, International Business Machines Corp. has largely avoided age discrimination lawsuits. Many believe this is at least partly due to severance agreements requiring arbitration be used to resolve such claims..

But a 60-year-old Texas man is bucking this longstanding tendency by bringing a federal lawsuit against Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM after being laid off in 2017. Jonathan Langley’s lawsuit alleges that the layoff had nothing to do with his job performance and everything to do with his age.

A 24-year career IBM employee, Langley says he was ousted when the company decided to reinvent itself “in the age of the Millennial.” To do so, IBM created an “early professionals” hiring program aimed solely at Millennials and shielded these employees from layoffs for nine months from their hire date, while simultaneously laying off thousands of Baby Boomers. According to Langley’s complaint, “Had Mr. Langley been younger, and especially if he had been a Millennial, IBM would not have fired him. Mr. Langley’s age was a motivating factor in his selection for termination.”

Langley says prior to his 2017 layoff, he consistently received positive job performance reviews and was even awarded a $20,000 performance bonus for the last quarter of 2016, six months before his layoff. Workplace experts say age discrimination is very difficult to prove, and although age discrimination was alleged in approximately 23% of all charges filed with the EEOC in 2016, only 2% were considered to have enough evidence to file a lawsuit.  

Considered the top technology company in the world 30 years ago, IBM once boasted lifetime job security (or as close to it as possible) in exchange for unfailing employee loyalty. But when the technology landscape began to change, IBM found itself stuck with a lot of experienced but aging and expensive U.S. workers.

In response to falling share prices and decreased sales, several years ago IBM set out to adjust the company’s “seniority mix” by offshoring thousands of jobs, cutting the U.S. workforce by 75% and replacing long-time employees with younger (and cheaper) employees.

Langley’s lawsuit was filed just days after a ProPublica/Mother Jones report was published, alleging that IBM has been systematically pushing out its older workers, “laying off an estimated 20,000 U.S. employees over age 40 since 2014. According to ProPublica, IBM did all this while staying under the legal radar by:

  • Withholding legally required disclosures from older workers who were being laid off;

  • Requiring workers to waive their right to file a lawsuit or join others in a class action;

  • Targeting certain older workers for layoffs, even if they had been rated as high performers;

  • Disguising job cuts as retirements to reduce the number of layoffs subject to public disclosure laws;

  • Encouraging workers targeted for layoffs to apply for other company positions, while at the same time advising managers not to hire them;

  • Bringing laid off workers back as contract employees for less pay and benefits.

When asked about the job cuts, IBM declined to provide ProPublica with the numbers or an age breakdown of those who lost their jobs, saying instead that the company has always complied with the law and has “not only survived but thrived for more than 100 years.” But many remain unconvinced, and former employees are not the only ones taking aim at IBM these days. The EEOC has also launched a nationwide probe of age discrimination by the company in the wake of the ProPublica investigation.

Facebook’s “Watching IBM” group has more than 18,000 followers, many of them disgruntled Boomers who used to work for IBM. Said one poster, “Get out now, especially when you are young. IBM is not a good place to be stuck at. Wish I was your age.”

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