FOR NEARLY A HALF CENTURY, IBM came as close as any company to bearing the torch for the American Dream.
As the world's dominant technology firm, payrolls at International Business Machines Corp. swelled to nearly a quarter-million U.S. white-collar workers in the 1980s. Its profits helped underwrite a broad agenda of racial equality, equal pay for women and an unbeatable offer of great wages and something close to lifetime employment, all in return for unswerving loyalty.
But when high tech suddenly started shifting and companies went global, IBM faced the changing landscape with a distinction most of its fiercest competitors didn't have: a large number of experienced and aging U.S. employees.
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The company reacted with a strategy that, in the words of one confidential planning document, would "correct seniority mix." It slashed IBM's U.S. workforce by as much as three-quarters from its 1980s peak, replacing a substantial share with younger, less-experienced and lower-paid workers and sending many positions overseas. ProPublica estimates that in the past five years alone, IBM has eliminated more than 20,000 American employees ages 40 and over, about 60 percent of its estimated total U.S. job cuts during those years.
In making these cuts, IBM has flouted or outflanked U.S. laws and regulations intended to protect later-career workers from age discrimination, according to a ProPublica review of internal company documents, legal filings and public records, as well as information provided via interviews and questionnaires filled out by more than 1,000 former IBM employees.
Among ProPublica's findings, IBM:
- Denied older workers information the law says they need in order to decide whether they've been victims of age bias, and required them to sign away the right to go to court or join with others to seek redress.
- Targeted people for layoffs and firings with techniques that tilted against older workers, even when the company rated them high performers. In some instances, the money saved from the departures went toward hiring young replacements.
- Converted job cuts into retirements and took steps to boost resignations and firings. The moves reduced the number of employees counted as layoffs, where high numbers can trigger public disclosure requirements.
- Encouraged employees targeted for layoff to apply for other IBM positions, while quietly advising managers not to hire them and requiring many of the workers to train their replacements.
- Told some older employees being laid off that their skills were out of date, but then brought them back as contract workers, often for the same work at lower pay and fewer benefits.
IBM declined requests for the numbers or age breakdown of its job cuts. ProPublica provided the company with a 10-page summary of its findings and the evidence on which they were based. IBM spokesman Edward Barbini said that to respond the company needed to see copies of all documents cited in the story, a request ProPublica could not fulfill without breaking faith with its sources. Instead, ProPublica provided IBM with detailed descriptions of the paperwork. Barbini declined to address the documents or answer specific questions about the firm's policies and practices, and instead issued the following statement:
"We are proud of our company and our employees' ability to reinvent themselves era after era, while always complying with the law. Our ability to do this is why we are the only tech company that has not only survived but thrived for more than 100 years."
With nearly 400,000 people worldwide, and tens of thousands still in the U.S., IBM remains a corporate giant. How it handles the shift from its veteran baby-boom workforce to younger generations will likely influence what other employers do. And the way it treats its experienced workers will eventually affect younger IBM employees as they too age.
Fifty years ago, Congress made it illegal with the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, or ADEA, to treat older workers differently than younger ones with only a few exceptions, such as jobs that require special physical qualifications. And for years, judges and policymakers treated the law as essentially on a par with prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation and other categories.
In recent decades, however, the courts have responded to corporate pleas for greater leeway to meet global competition and satisfy investor demands for rising profits by expanding the exceptions and shrinking the protections against age bias.
"Age discrimination is an open secret like sexual harassment was until recently," said Victoria Lipnic, the acting chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, the independent federal agency that administers the nation's workplace anti-discrimination laws.
"Everybody knows it's happening, but often these cases are difficult to prove" because courts have weakened the law, Lipnic said. "The fact remains it's an unfair and illegal way to treat people that can be economically devastating."
Many companies have sought to take advantage of the court rulings. But the story of IBM's downsizing provides an unusually detailed portrait of how a major American corporation systematically identified employees to coax or force out of work in their 40s, 50s and 60s, a time when many are still productive and need a paycheck, but face huge hurdles finding anything like comparable jobs.
The dislocation caused by IBM's cuts has been especially great because until recently the company encouraged its employees to think of themselves as "IBMers" and many operated under the assumption that they had career-long employment.
When the ax suddenly fell, IBM provided almost no information about why an employee was cut or who else was departing, leaving people to piece together what had happened through websites, listservs and Facebook groups such as "Watching IBM" or "Geographically Undesirable IBM Marketers," as well as informal support groups.
Marjorie Madfis, at the time 57, was a New York-based digital marketing strategist and 17-year IBM employee when she and six other members of her nine-person team — all women in their 40s and 50s — were laid off in July 2013. The two who remained were younger men.
Since her specialty was one that IBM had said it was expanding, she asked for a written explanation of why she was let go. The company declined to provide it.