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IBM HR made me lie to US govt, says axed VP in age-discrim legal row: I was ordered to cover up layoffs of older workers

Big Blue brands claim 'outlandish' in non-denial denial

A former senior executive at IBM has claimed she was ordered to lie to the US government about just how many older workers Big Blue was laying off.

And she says she was fired after pointing out that the aging biz was breaking age discrimination laws by primarily firing post-50 staff.

The shocking allegations are found in an affidavit filed Thursday in the Southern District of New York by Catherine Rodgers, formerly IBM's vice president in its Global Engagement Office. She claims her superiors directed her to hide information about staff leaving from the US Department of Labor.

Describing the circumstances under which she was terminated after nearly four decades with IBM, Rodgers said she believes she was fired for raising concerns that IBM was engaged in systematic age discrimination against employees over the age of 40.

The lawsuit, Rusis et al v. IBM, was filed in September 2018. Along with similar age discrimination claims brought against IBM in California and Texas, it followed a March 2018 report from ProPublica and Mother Jones that said the global IT biz over the past few years engaged in a systematic campaign to get rid of older workers. According to the exposé, about 60 per cent of the 20,000 people laid off over a five year period were over 40.

Rodgers is not a plaintiff in the New York case, however, but has one of her own. In an email to The Register, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys, Shannon Liss-Riordan, a partner at Lichten & Liss-Riordan, PC, in Boston, explained Rodgers has a separate claim that will be filed against IBM alleging age discrimination and retaliation.

She will join a growing number of ex-IBMers suing the IT giant over alleged discrimination, including cloud sales lead Jonathan Langley and mainframe industry veteran Terry Keebaugh.

Trouble at the top

Rodgers, who was 62 when fired on July 17, 2017, served as VP in IBM's global engagement office and senior state executive for Nevada.

As a consequence of her senior position, Rodgers said she had access to all the people to be laid off in her group. All of them, she said, were over the age of 50, and younger workers were unaffected by the layoff.

"Having spoken with peer managers from other groups with younger populations, I am aware that the percentage of employees from my group who were laid off was vastly higher than the percentage of employees who were laid off from younger groups," she wrote in her court paperwork.

I was directed to delete all but one name before I submitted the form to the Department of Labor

"I was very surprised that such a high percentage of my group was laid off, because my group was running under budget and was exceeding its performance targets."

In April 2017, she recounted, two employees who were over 50 and had been included in the layoff, filed a request for financial assistance from the Department of Labor under the Trade Assistance Act, a 2015 law that provides support for laid off workers.

"As a result, the Department of Labor sent me a form to fill out that asked me to state all of the employees within my group who had been laid off in the last three years and what their ages were," Rodgers said her affidavit.

"I listed all of the employees in my group who had been laid off, all of whom were over the age of fifty. I reviewed this form with IBM HR, and I was directed to delete all but one name before I submitted the form to the Department of Labor."

Dirty deeds, done dirt cheap?

Rodgers also claims that other tactics were used to dissuade older staff from staying on. Despite more than a decade espousing the benefits of home working, Rodgers said that IBM began insisting that older staff came into the office daily.

She also says older workers were more likely to face relocation to new locations across the US. Very few chose to do so, forcing them into accepting retirement. One staffer she knew of did agree to relocate to Connecticut. IBM then reassigned her to an office in South Carolina.

Rodgers says that she herself received "excellent performance evaluations," annually until she began raising questions. Shortly after doing so, she got her first ever negative performance review, despite meeting all her targets for the year. She was then given more and more work to do without a pay rise.

"In the 2017 performance review cycle, I was given a mediocre performance review even though my business results far exceeded mutually agreed-to business objectives," she stated in her filing.

"My manager, Steve Welsh, indicated that my rating was directed from the top down by Richard Patterson, the general manager of Global Technology Services. Mr Welsh told me that Mr Patterson had not even looked at my business results when he directed the mediocre evaluation."

The plaintiffs' memorandum accompanying the affidavit asks the court to authorize the notification of former IBM employees around the US who are over 40 and lost their jobs since 2017 that they can join the legal proceedings against the mainframe giant.

Liss-Riordan said that the process is called "conditional certification," a preliminary step in age discrimination and federal wage cases. It's different from "class certification," she said, which may be sought after discovery for state law claims.

"We have been contacted by hundreds of employees and of those, more than a hundred had timely claims and have already joined the case either in court or arbitration," said Liss-Riordan.

"We submitted affidavits from a sampling of those employees describing their experience being let go by IBM. As you can see, they paint a very compelling and disturbing picture of a company intent on reducing its older workforce and replacing them with younger employees, and with a particular focus on hiring Millennials."

Asked whether she intends to argue that IBM directed Rodgers to lie to the government and whether she believes the claims could lead to a criminal complaint against the company, Liss-Riordan declined to comment.

"But the affidavit speaks for itself," she said. And it's plain others others think there could be more serious charges ahead.

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