A team of investigative journalists report IBM ousted older workers in favor of younger ones. We unpacked the findings of the story, published in ProPublica and Mother Jones.
On Point guest host Anthony Brooks talked with Ariana Tobin, engagement reporter at ProPublica; Peter Gosselin, contributing reporter at ProPublica covering aging; Lorilynn King, former IT specialist for IBM; and Ashton Applewhite, writer and activist focusing on ageism. The highlights below have been lightly edited for clarity.
On "forced retirement" from IBM:
King: "There had been a series of resource actions. People called them layoffs, but a layoff implies that you were going to come back if things turn around and IBM has no intention of doing that. So every quarter there is a resource action and the culture there is now that everybody has a target on their back. It's just a matter of when their turn comes. Three weeks after my 55th birthday I got a phone call from my manager saying that I was on the list for a resource action. I had 90 days to train my replacement and then I would get 30 days of severance. After 33 years."
Gosselin: "[King's story is] very common... What we found at the company was a pattern that we are more and more convinced exists at lots of companies, maybe the majority of American employers. And that is that they have systems in place that weed out people 40, 50, 60, and so forth. Target them with a variety of techniques to show them the door. IBM may be only more systematic about it, in the sense that they started by finding a legal maneuver to outflank the law that requires employers laying off people 40 and over to disclose to the employee the ages and job positions — not the names — of people being laid off with them. So if you're a 40-year-old you have some sense of what's going on around you and what you're a part of and have some initial grasp of whether what's happening to you is because of your age."
On how the practice evolved:
Tobin: "When IBM started they hadn't had a layoff until the 1990s when layoffs started to become part of their business model, when they started to become part of an option for workers who had joined this company. People would talk about it, they would join together on Facebook groups, they would join together on email listservs, they'd talk. I know that we've mentioned that there is no IBM union. Well right around 2000 there actually was a pretty substantial movement toward unionizing at IBM. And all of these people in these places where they were getting angry about changes that their employer was making would come together and try to compare notes to figure out what was happening to see if there was some kind of larger plan or strategy or unfair targeting of certain kinds of workers. And up until 2014 IBM was providing the kind of information required by law that you just mentioned which is a list of ages and positions within the company."
Brooks: "There were other sort of systematic approaches ... for weeding out older employees... one of the ideas was encouraging employees targeted for layoffs to apply for other IBM positions while quietly advising managers not to hire them."
Gosselin: "That's right. This in many ways was the last straw for many IBMers, because it became clear to them that they were qualified for many of the jobs that were available — other jobs other than their own — that they were being laid off from and they simply got shot down almost across the board. Early on you said that a lot of the jobs went to younger, less costly employees, new hires. The other thing that happened was that loads of the jobs were shipped overseas in a process called lift and shift. And I can only theorize about why the company would offer jobs that it wouldn't give people and that is to keep people engaged with their work for those final days that they were at the company — engaged in the process of handing over the keys to their job to a new either young or less expensive employee or overseas employee."
On how the system works:
Gosselin: "We have planning documents for a major division. Every fall, they put together essentially a resource plan for the coming year. These very specifically say that particularly in the most recent round that among the plans are plans to make major layoffs and use the funds to fund an influx of what they called EPHs, which are early professional hires, to, in the words of the document, correct 'seniority mix.' We found in another division a point system being used that allowed them to essentially score employees on a number of parameters that were valued by the company and the scores or most of the scores were on their face tilted against older workers."
On age discrimination:
Gosselin: "One of our big findings is that the law has been utterly enfeebled. For the first 25 years of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, it was read by the courts and by policymakers as absolutely in tandem with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which is the law that prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, so on and so forth. Starting in the '90s increasingly conservative appeals courts and the Supreme Court have pulled away the protections, especially on age, so that the proof level to make an age discrimination case is well-nigh impossible to meet at this point."
Applewhite: "IBM is just the tip of the iceberg, as Peter mentioned. Ageism in tech is just the most visible example of age bias in the workplace as a whole. Two-thirds of older workers report encounter it, according to AARP. Age bias in the workplace is just the most visible example of ageism in society as a whole. It's dumb because it's intuitively obvious that experience is an asset not a liability, and that age is a criterion for diversity, and it's wrong because of the human cost. One of the first stories to break about ageism in tech was — I've never forgotten — it was in Technology Review a couple of years ago and they interviewed a young guy who worked in Silicon Valley who was going to get Botox and hair plugs because he had a key interview coming up and he said, 'I can't look like I have a wife and two kids.' Something is wrong with a society where someone being old enough to have a wife and two little kids means that he is not eligible for full participation in the workforce."
IBM was asked to appear on the show and gave a statement:
"We are proud of our company and our employees' ability to reinvent themselves, era after era while always complying with the law."
Ariana Tobin, engagement reporter at ProPublica. (@Ariana_Tobin)
Peter Gosselin, contributing reporter at ProPublica covering aging. (@PeterGosselin)
Lorilynn King, former IT specialist for IBM.
Ashton Applewhite, writer and activist focusing on ageism. (@thischairrocks)
From The Reading List:
ProPublica: Cutting 'Old Heads' At IBM — "As the world’s dominant technology firm, payrolls at International Business Machines Corp. swelled to nearly a quarter-million U.S. white-collar workers in the 1980s. Its profits helped underwrite a broad agenda of racial equality, equal pay for women and an unbeatable offer of great wages and something close to lifetime employment, all in return for unswerving loyalty."
Advocates for older workers in America say age discrimination is an open secret like sexual harassment used to be. An investigation by ProPublica and Mother Jones offers a case in point: It alleges that IBM flouted U.S. laws designed to protect late-career employees — and forced out tens of thousands who were over 40, then replaced them with younger, lower-paid workers. A confidential IBM memo calls this “correcting the seniority mix.”
This hour, On Point: age discrimination at IBM.
This program aired on March 28, 2018.