The long-time rumblings about age discrimination at IBM have finally produced a lawsuit. A 60-year-old Texas man alleges in a suit filed May 25 that he was improperly laid off amid the company's push to hire millennials.
Jonathan Langley, a former salesman in IBM's Hybrid Cloud unit, alleges the company sent him packing after a 24-year career that consistently "met or exceeded" the company's performance expectations. He also claims the company lied to investigators from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about the reasons for his dismissal.
The reality is if he had "been younger, and especially if he had been a Millennial, IBM would not have fired him," the federal lawsuit says.
Langley's Austin-based legal team filed the case just before the Memorial Day holiday, and in it highlighted a recent ProPublica/Mother Jones report that alleges the company is systematically pushing out its older workers, tilting its in-house evaluation and layoff process even against high performers. According to the report, IBM had “ousted an estimated 20,000 U.S. employees ages 40 and over since 2014, about 60 percent of its American job cuts during those years."
Steve Groetzinger, a Triangle resident and former salesman for the company's Security Division, says he was one of those targeted. Groetzinger, now 66, was working on a sales proposal to North Carolina's state government when he was laid off in 2016.
"When I looked around at all the people who've been laid off recently, there was a pattern," Groetzinger said. "Everybody was over 50."
Groetzinger isn't inclined to join the litigation — "I'm over it, I'm retired and I'm doing fine," he said — but he points out that other layoff victims aren't as lucky.
Some are "people a little younger than me who still had houses to pay off or kids in college," he said. "To them, this is really bad."
IBM, which employs thousands at its corporate campus in Research Triangle Park, has gone through multiple rounds of layoffs in recent years, including one just before the Memorial Day holiday that targeted workers in its Watson Health project.
Company Chief Financial Officer Jim Kavanaugh earlier this spring told investment analysts the company had taken "about a $610 million [job] action" in the first quarter of 2018, and ducked questions about whether that was the end of "workforce rebalancing" for the year.
After layoffs, social-media postings in forums such as Facebook's "Watching IBM" group regularly feature complaints that the targets were in their 60s, 50s and even late 40s.
IBM says it has done nothing wrong. "IBM complies with all applicable laws, and we will defend this case vigorously," company spokesman Doug Shelton said, referring to Langley's lawsuit.
The situation has led to complaints to the EEOC, which appears to be taking an interest the matter. Pro Publica reported recently that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has launched a nationwide probe of age bias at IBM. It cited as its sources ex-employees who had spoken with investigators and people familiar with the agency’s actions, including a former general counsel for the EEOC. The EEOC does not comment on on-going investigations.
Litigation is the next frontier, but lawsuits are complicated by severance agreements that call for the use of arbitration to resolve age-discrimination claims.
Langley is suing IBM on his own, but the issue is serious enough that it could "potentially" spawn a class-action lawsuit against the company, said David Lopez, a former EEOC general counsel who's now with a San Francisco law firm, Outten & Golden, that specializes in employment law.
Nor is IBM the only tech-industry player that's under fire. Lopez and his firm are involved in a lawsuit that accuses a number of companies, Amazon among them, of using age-restricted employment ads on Facebook to exclude older workers.
"When you start peeling the onion, you start to see that age discrimination in the hiring process is pervasive," Lopez said.
Lopez is also representing a former IBM program manager from Georgia, Coretta Roddey, who suspects her "over 40" age has something to do with her inability to return to the company after stints elsewhere in the private sector.
Roddey said she left IBM on good terms and was deemed re-hireable. But subsequent interviews or recruiting contacts, including one with an IBM human-resources manager based in the Research Triangle Park, never turned into an offer. She's filed an EEOC complaint.