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What Does Age Discrimination Look Like? ProPublica Examines IBM

Recently, the independent, nonprofit investigative journalism newsroom ProPublica released a detailed analysis of massive personnel changes at IBM that it believes indicate age discrimination.

Over the past five years, IBM has cut over 20,000 U.S. employees aged 40 and over, which accounts for around 60 percent of its total job cuts. Some were hired back as contractors with substantially lower pay and benefits. Others were replaced with younger workers. A confidential planning memo said this was to "correct seniority mix."

ProPublica examined internal company documents, public records, and legal filings, and interviewed or surveyed over 1,400 former IBM employees for this story. IBM did not respond in detail to the allegations but generally denies them. Since ProPublica's original analysis was published, IBM has not provided any additional response. The layoffs, however, continue.

"Age discrimination is an open secret like sexual harassment was until recently," said the acting chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "Everybody knows it's happening, but often these cases are difficult to prove" because courts have weakened the law. "The fact remains it's an unfair and illegal way to treat people that can be economically devastating."

Employers can be tempted to replace older workers, who have built up higher salaries and may receive legacy benefits, with younger, less expensive ones. Willfully doing so violates the 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

Here are some of the issues ProPublica highlighted. IBM allegedly:

  • Selected people for layoffs and firings using methods that are tilted against even high-performing older workers
  • Replaced older workers with younger ones
  • Invited laid-off workers to apply for other IBM positions but advised the managers not to hire them
  • Claimed that workers were released because their skills were out of date, but brought them back as contractors to do the same work
  • Denied older workers legally required information that would allow them to determine whether they are victims of age discrimination
  • Required departing workers to sign away the right to sue or join class actions
  • Kept the official number of layoffs low by converting job cuts into early retirements and working to increase resignations and firings. This avoided public disclosure requirements

Each of those actions gives the impression that age discrimination is taking place at IBM, although the issue has not been adjudicated in court.

"It's not good for society," commented a law professor. "We have rules to try to maintain some fairness in our lives, our age-discrimination laws among them. You can't just disregard them."

Have you seen similar activity at your company? If you suspect age discrimination, discuss your situation with an employment law attorney before making a complaint. Your lawyer can help you make a convincing case and protect you from retaliation.

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