Former top executives at IBM insulted older employees — calling them “dinobabies” and “a dated maternal workforce” — while coveting younger ones in internal communications over the past decade, according to a document unsealed by a federal judge late last week.
The document is a statement of facts prepared by a Boston attorney representing laid-off older workers suing IBM for age discrimination. Drawing on in-house e-mails she obtained, the document discloses the outlines of a plan to change the age mix of the storied technology firm. The new details provide more ammunition for the workers in a federal lawsuit and hundreds of private arbitration cases nationwide.
IBM continued to deny Monday that it engages in age bias, saying the e-mails don’t represent company policies or values.
The unsealed statement of facts quotes from executive e-mails in which IBM’s then-leaders lamented the relatively small cohort of millennials in their employee ranks and stressed the need to “accelerate change by inviting the ‘dinobabies’ . . . to leave and make them an ‘extinct species’” — an apparent reference to older workers they regarded as whiney dinosaurs. The document doesn’t cite specific dates for ones it quotes.
One e-mail appeared to cast older women at the company as a “dated maternal workforce,” noting, “They really don’t understand social or engagement. Not digital natives. A real threat for us.”
Other e-mails enviously cited a higher share of younger workers at rival firms, cautioning IBM executives who received the communications that “the data below is very sensitive — not to be shared” and urging managers to “keep data on age very limited and when in doubt check with legal,” a seeming reference to the company’s lawyers.
IBM’s e-mails discussed a plan to offer older workers whose jobs were being eliminated a chance to relocate to other sites, noting that a small percentage of employees were likely to accept such offers. They also referred to a “mandatory” policy that “no [early professional hire] is eligible for [resource action],” the company’s term for layoffs, during a period in which IBM shed thousands of jobs. Many layoffs occurred in Massachusetts where IBM, based in Armonk, N.Y., had acquired smaller tech companies such as Lotus Development and Rational Software.
The federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act, passed in 1967, prohibits employers from treating workers age 40 and over differently from younger staffers in hiring, promotion, and discharge.
Last month, US District Judge Lewis Liman in New York ordered that the statement of facts be made public. It was filed in an age bias case by Boston labor lawyer Shannon Liss-Riordan. IBM appealed the judge’s ruling, asking for a stay, but its motion was rejected by a three-judge appeals panel. The underlying e-mails quoted in the statement have yet to be unsealed as Liman weighs whether to allow the release of names of the IBM executives who took part in the in-house communications.
The names of executives are redacted in the statement of facts. But the statement noted that one of the top-level executives involved in some of the most sensitive e-mails served from 2012 to 2020. Those dates correspond to the tenure of former chief executive Ginny Rometty, who stressed the need to embrace “new-collar skills of the future” in a 2017 television interview with CNBC.
IBM spokesman Chris Mumma declined to say Monday whether Rometty was part of the e-mail chain disparaging older workers. He noted the e-mails remain under seal with the executives’ names redacted.
“Some language in e-mails between former IBM executives that has been reported is not consistent with the respect IBM has for its employees,” Mumma said. He noted that IBM’s workforce in 2020 continued to have a higher percentage of older workers than the US labor force as a whole.
Liss-Riordan represents more than 1,000 employees over age 40 who allege age bias in a federal case, which she’s seeking to certify as a class action, and in private arbitration cases across the country.
Employees laid off during the past decade, including dozens from Massachusetts, were required to sign a confidentiality agreement — promising to use arbitration rather than join a lawsuit to contest any challenge to their dismissal — as a condition for receiving severance.
Liss-Riordan, a candidate for Massachusetts attorney general, said she was shocked at the blunt language in IBM’s internal communications.
“Can you imagine if there was language like that about race or sex?” she asked rhetorically. “The idea that someone thought it was acceptable to use those terms and talk about it that way is mind-boggling.”
IBM on Monday shared a message to employees from Nickle LaMoreaux, its chief human resources officer, seeking to refute “false claims” of age bias. The message said 37 percent of the company’s US hires between 2010 and 2020 were over the age of 40. It said the median age of its US workers in 2020 was 48 — the same as a decade earlier, and six years older than the median age of all US workers.
Addressing the e-mails that were made public Friday, the message from LaMoreaux insisted that “disrespectful language is not who we are. It in no way reflects IBM’s practices or policies.”
The statement added: “Discrimination of any kind is entirely against our culture and who we are at IBM, and there was (and is) no systemic age discrimination at our company.”
Robert Weisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.