Two former HR professionals for IBM sued the company Wednesday alleging that they were unlawfully terminated because of their age as part of a plan to lay off more than 50% of IBM’s HR employees.
The plaintiffs, ages 62 and 66, worked at IBM for at least 20 years each. According to the filing, IBM announced the layoffs internally in or around January before executing them in the spring. The list of cuts allegedly included “IBM’s best and brightest” HR workers, who “were also some of the Company’s oldest and most senior HR partners.”
The suit further alleged that IBM’s layoffs had been two years in the making, starting with the diversion of HR functions to call centers and, later, the introduction of chatbots and artificial intelligence tools, after which the company “quickly ramped up efforts to reduce the number of real humans handling [HR] functions.”
The plaintiffs claimed that younger employees with lower performance ratings compared to terminated employees were retained, and that terminated employees’ responsibilities were assumed by younger employees in newly created positions or titles.
IBM staff also frequently used discriminatory and coded language to describe layoff decisions, the suit claimed.
For instance, the plaintiffs said supervisors and colleagues would describe older workers as having shorter “runways,” which referred to the number of years before their retirement. During planning for mass layoffs, including the 2023 layoff, the plaintiffs claimed IBM would consider “runway” length when choosing employees to cut while also referring to the need for employees with “new skills” or “new energy.”
IBM did not immediately respond to an HR Dive request for comment.
The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, represents the latest in a series of age discrimination claims against IBM stretching several years. Last year, filings in one lawsuit revealed communications between senior IBM executives in which participants used discriminatory language in reference to older workers as well as explicit plans to terminate older workers.
In 2020, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission concluded an investigation into IBM, determining that the company’s layoffs between 2013 and 2018 had an adverse impact on older workers. The agency’s analysis showed that about 86% of workers considered for layoff by IBM during the timeframe investigated were older workers. Older workers were at times laid off, told that their skills were outdated, and then rehired as contract workers with lower pay and fewer benefits, EEOC said.
Bloomberg previously reported in May that IBM CEO Arvind Krishna announced plans to pause hiring for roles that AI could replace, including back-office functions like HR.