Once again, a group of former employees is accusing IBM of age discrimination. This time around, they’re charging the tech giant with taking illegal action to prevent employees from challenging them on discriminatory practices. If they win, they could open the floodgates for additional lawsuits from thousands of their recently-fired peers.
The complaint is the second in a less than a year to cite the same ProPublica investigation. Last March, the report outlined IBM's controversial attempts to “embrace the millennial mindset.” It estimated that, over the last five years, IBM has terminated over 20,000 US employees aged 40 and over. This accounts for nearly 60% of the company's job eliminations throughout that period.
ProPublica’s sweeping investigation first made headlines last September when three former employees kickstarted a class action lawsuit against IBM. In exhaustive detail, it alleges that IBM's discriminatory practices included: “Deny[ing] older workers information the law says they need, Target[ing] people for layoffs and firings with techniques that tilted against older workers, and Encouraging employees targeted for layoffs to apply for other IBM positions, while quietly advising managers not to hire them.” It also points to a 2006 paper describing the company's veteran employees as “gray hairs” and “old heads.”
IBM has flatly denied the allegations. In an official statement, VP Edward Barbini writes, “Changes in our workforce are about skills, not age . . . That is why we have been and will continue investing in employee skills and retraining to make all of successful in the new era of technology.”
Whether or not IBM is found liable in either case, their troubles bring the issue of age discrimination into the spotlight once more. The tech industry, in particular, has faced scrutiny over the last decade for abandoning veteran employees in the name of ceasless innovation. Shannon Liss-Riordan, who represents the plaintiffs in the earlier lawsuit, has previously taken on Amazon, Uber, and Google for similar violations.
There's no denying that the business world's long-predicted 'digital transformation' calls for a new kind of professional.
This was IBM's thinking when CEO Ginni Rometty “launched a major overhaul to make IBM a major player in the emerging technologies of cloud services, big data analytics, mobile security, and social media, or what came to be known as CAMS.” To become a leader in this space, IBM began to emphasize the millennial point-of-view and ramp up its efforts to recruit professionals born after 1980.
The philosophy is not entirely wrong-headed. Emerging technologies call for the skills that companies are unlikely to have cultivated in the past. At a glance, the incoming wave of tech-savvy millennials can look like the answer to an ambitious company's prayers. They're joining the workforce in increasing numbers, boast native familiarity with technology, and (crucially) often lack the experience necessary to negotiate a higher salary. Embracing millennial talent at the expense of veteran employees, however, is not merely dubious. It is a short-sighted move, one that's tantamount to investing in a new technology without taking time to plan for implementation.
Procurement and supply chain management is often particularly susceptible to this kind of thinking. And it's not just hiring managers and company leadership encouraging it. Last May, APICS, APQC, and Supply Chain Management Review conducted a survey of over 650 millennials in the field. The report found that a staggering 81% of these young professionals believe procurement is “old and set in its ways.”
This statistic suggests that age discrimination has not solved procurement's problems. What's more, it reveals a widening generational divide within procurement groups. On one side, executives and managers are scrambling to innovate by cutting heads, buying into the hype around new tools, and welcoming droves of millennials to the team. On the other, these same millennials are struggling to innovate within an industry plagued by antiquated tools, outdated processes, and the mass exodus of veteran talent.
It's clear that shaking up procurement's age demographics won't pave the way for a quick and easy digital transformation. What's needed is a carefully considered hand-off. Organizations cannot afford to let years of knowledge and experience walk out the door, nor can they afford to stake their futures on the promise of untested talent. They need to leverage supply chain veterans to nurture incoming generations and ensure they develop the skills necessary to drive the procurement function into its next era.
The same survey found that 30% of millennials are frustrated with “a lack of knowledge transfer or training” in the workplace. Developing mentorship programs could eliminate these frustrations while simultaneously providing for a more communicative and amicable office environment. In time, the us vs. them divide will give way to a culture characterized by mutual respect and a free exchange of ideas. The best of such programs will empower millennials to share what they know and help their more senior peers develop core technological competencies. This will not only help them mature into leadership roles, but could eliminate any biases toward their controversial generation.
“What's good for Millennials is good for everyone.” IBM brand strategist Bill Grady made this pronouncement at an event in 2014. The statement appears to have become something like a rallying cry for the organization. Though admittedly less dramatic, a less controversial and more constructive policy might have been, “What's good for all employees is good for all employees.”