Now IBM sued for age discrim by its own HR veterans

Staff with short 'runways' told to take off amid shift to corporate chatbots, it's claimed

IBM, which last year insisted "there was (and is) no systemic age discrimination" at the mainframe giant, has again been sued for age discrimination.

The complaint [PDF], filed Wednesday in a New York federal district court on behalf of plaintiffs Pamela Wimbish, 62, and Patricia Onken, 66, says that contrary to CEO Arvind Krishna's 2022 statement about having no plans for further layoffs, Krishna only a year later said he expected to replace thousands of back-office employees, particularly in human resources, with AI technology.

That now, allegedly, is happening.

"Rather than laying off its weakest, least experienced or least knowledgeable HR employees, IBM has disproportionately terminated its older employees despite their high levels of performance," the complaint claims.

"IBM deems its older employees as having short professional 'runways,' but it also assumes they are averse to new technology – even as some of their oldest employees have played essential roles in keeping the company at the forefront of the technology market."

Onken, according to the court filing, served as one of five HR managers that supervised IBM’s HR Strategic Business Partners throughout the US. She had excellent performance reviews and "received global recognition from IBM’s chief global HR officer Nickel LaMoreaux" for her contributions to the creation of a tool to automate the promotion process in IBM's consulting organization.

Despite her experience and understanding of Big Blue's business, the complaint says, "these qualities could not shield her from the company’s most recent layoffs in which age – or 'runway' in IBM-speak – was a central criteria."

"Onken is deeply familiar with the company’s considerations during mass layoffs. Her supervisors and colleagues often discussed the criteria for choosing which 'resources' – ie, human employees – would be subject to a given 'resource action' – ie, layoff."

The complaint explains that layoff discussions frequently used the term "runway" to refer to the number of years before an employee was expected to retire. And it asserts that regardless of other factors like workplace performance, contributions to the company, or a facility for learning new skills, employees with a short runway – older workers – were more likely to be let go.

It's further claimed that Onken in January 2023 was involved in the closure of an IBM HR office in California and received a box of old company documents.

"Inside these boxes, [Onken] discovered pages and pages of documents listing IBM employees by their names, titles, ages and the nickname for each mass layoff that had affected each employee," the complaint says. "Onken was quickly instructed to destroy the incriminating documents."

The court filing says the files "were clearly the relics of an earlier layoff in which age played a role in the decision-making process."

The attorney representing the plaintiffs did not immediately respond to a query about the current status of those documents.

According to the court filing, the plan that IBM announced in January 2023 to reduce HR staff by approximately 50 percent began two years earlier when many HR functions were shifted to calls centers in Asia.

"Then, with the introduction of 'chatbots' and other AI tools, IBM quickly ramped up efforts to reduce the number of real humans handling human resources functions," the complaint says.

Onken alleges that after seeing her own name on a list of people she was supposed to terminate, many of whom were top performers, she found the company's claims about factors considered – skills, business unit knowledge and "ways of working" – did not explain why those staffers were chosen.

She also noted that most of those older employees were also top performers

"After examining lists of terminated employees and discussing the layoffs with her peers, Onken observed that out of over 30 employees that she knew were being terminated, at least 20 of them were over 50 years old," the complaint says. "She also noted that most of those older employees were also top performers."

The situation is particularly ironic for Pamela Wimbish, who until recently served as senior strategic HR partner at IBM. "During her eight years as an HR Partner, Wimbish helped improve the quality and user adoption of new technology platforms such as overseas call centers and AI chatbots, as well as other significant changes to business processes," the complaint explains.

This is the very technology behind the HR staff reduction.

Wimbish, it's claimed, defended another worker, aged 70, that IBM executives discussed laying off because he "'doesn’t have much runway.'"

"Wimbish had to remind them that the employee had phenomenal sales numbers and there was no non-age-based reason to terminate him," the filing says. And yet her "runway" too was short and Wimbish ended up being laid off in April 2023, her role taken over by a junior HR employee she'd trained.

For its part, IBM insists nothing is amiss.

"IBM denies and will vigorously defend itself against each of the allegations in this complaint," an IBM spokesperson told The Register in an email, pointing to LaMoreaux's 2022 statement that age does not figure into company layoff decisions. "Age was not a factor in these employment decisions and discrimination has no place at IBM."

Numerous age discrimination lawsuits have been filed against IBM since ProPublica reported in 2018 that the company under former CEO Ginny Rometty had devised a plan to get rid of older workers.

In 2020, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) found [PDF] IBM's claim that layoffs aimed for cost reduction and not older workers "does not withstand scrutiny" and that "there is reasonable cause to believe that [IBM] has discriminated against [employees] on the basis of age."

Many of those complaints have been settled for undisclosed sums. ®

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