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An IBM exec called employees 'dinobabies.' That went about as well as you’d imagine.

Protocol Workplace

Welcome back to our Workplace newsletter. Today: IBM’s age-discrimination case, pay cuts versus raise caps, and employees’ comfort with returning to the office.

—Amber Burton, reporter (email | twitter)

The IBM case study: Building a young and vibrant workforce? You might also be participating in age discrimination.

IBM got a lot of heat this week for an old, newly revealed email that called older workers “dinobabies” and talked about removing them from the workforce. But that “dinobabies” comment was just one line in a complicated and revealing legal filing that detailed how, over the last decade, IBM was desperate to shed its stodgy reputation and find a way to build a millennial workforce. While building a younger workforce might seem logical for a venerable tech giant struggling to keep up with its mighty cloud competitors, its efforts to do that have gotten it into some hot legal waters.

Employment discrimination on the basis of age is, of course, illegal. If you think younger workers are better for your tech company and you want to favor or adjust for a younger workforce, you have to do it in a way that does not explicitly discriminate against your current worker population or future applicants.

An executive calling older workers “dinobabies” in an email seems a little silly on the face of it. What exactly is a dinobaby? A dinosaur? Or a baby? Regardless, lawyers used the phrase as evidence in court filings this week in a years-long fight over whether IBM has tried to revamp its workforce in a way that violates labor laws. If you haven’t been following along over the last 10 years or so, here’s where things sit with IBM today.

  • The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determined in August 2020 that between 2013 and 2018, IBM engaged in top-down messaging advocating for reduction in headcount of older workers in order to make room for younger, new hires. The commission also said that it reviewed evidence that the company told workers their skills were out of date, laid them off and then rehired them as contractors with lower wages.
  • Though none of these actions qualified as violations of the Civil Rights Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act, the EEOC determined that there was sufficient evidence to believe that IBM discriminated against older workers.
  • Meanwhile, hundreds of former IBM employees have allegedly entered individual arbitration with the company over their belief that they were discriminated against because of their age. Because of arbitration rules, most of these workers haven’t been allowed to share evidence that might help each other’s cases, and so one attorney who represents hundreds of these people, Shannon Liss-Riordan, is trying to convince a court to change that.

In addition to the now infamous “dinobabies” comment, the filings this week included quotes from what Liss-Riordan described as corporate planning documents, including: “A new focus on Early Professional Hires supports the future talent system to rebuild, rejuvenate, and gain momentum” and “A case for change: IBM’s emphasis on experienced level hiring is out of step with competitors resulting in higher costs and a weaker pipeline for future leaders.”

IBM adamantly denies all allegations of age discrimination. The company’s CHRO, Nickle LaMoreaux, said in an email on Monday that between 2010 and 2020, 37% of U.S. hires were over 40 years old, and that the median age of its workforce was 48 years old both in 2010 and 2020. “I also want to emphasize that disrespectful language is not who we are,” she also wrote.

— Anna Kramer, reporter (email | twitter)

Raise cap, anyone?

Pay cuts for employees who decide to move to more affordable cities have become common among the tech giants. But the less talked-about alternative is a raise cap for employees who choose to relocate. (It turns out geo-neutral pay is expensive. Who knew?). Instead of docking pay on the front end, several execs told Protocol they are limiting employees' pay increases down the line if they move to a cheaper market. It’s not about discouraging employees from moving, but rather a way for the company to balance out its new compensation structures and variables. “Employees know not to expect really big increases for a bit until the [compensation] bands are more caught up with where they are. But we’re not cutting their salaries as they go, so people feel more supported if they need to move,” Nikki Salenetri, VP of People at Gympass, told my colleague Allison Levitsky.

Read the full story.

A MESSAGE FROM ENVOY

The concept of flex work isn’t new, but its widespread adoption is. Flex work helps all of us find some semblance of control in the middle of an uncontrollable pandemic. Giving options makes people happier and less stressed. This leads to a greater desire to participate, which helps us build our communities and culture.

Learn more

Today's tips & tools

How can we attain deep, uninterrupted work when our days are filled with constantly competing priorities? Email, Slack messages, Zoom calls: All request our attention. I talked with Superhuman CEO Rahul Vohra about how he manages his time and finds his focus. The goal is “flow,” Vohra’s preferred term for absorbing, focused work. It’s one of his favorite topics, so we could have talked for hours. But I narrowed his tips — which include logging your tasks throughout the day, staggering your team’s calendars and harnessing active procrastination — down into one story.

— Lizzy Lawrence, reporter (email | twitter)

Are we returning to normal?

Morning Consult released an update to its report that tracks the “return to normal” at work. The verdict: People are feeling a little more comfortable with returning to the physical office. The company has primarily focused on tracking the sentiments of U.S. employees who once worked in an office and now work remotely. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Remote workers' comfort with returning to the office is at its highest point since November 2021, around the time the omicron variant spiked in the U.S. 68% of the professionals surveyed said they were comfortable with returning if their office announced they could go back to the workplace, up from 56% at the beginning of the month.
  • The greatest consideration for returning to the office lies in employees’ trust in employers. 66% of people said they trust their employer to make the right decision about when they can return to the office.
  • However, 61% said they would only feel comfortable returning to the office once they know all their colleagues have been vaccinated.
  • 83% of professionals said they still enjoy working remotely.

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Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to workplace@protocol.com. Have a great day, see you Sunday.

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