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What HR can learn from the IBM ageism row

IBM has been accused of trying to force out older employees, with court documents alleging managers refer to them dismissively as ‘dinobabies’ who should be an ‘extinct species’ in favour of younger digital natives. Global HR analyst Josh Bersin discusses why this kind of ageism may be an endemic problem in the tech sector.

Unfortunately, the IT industry has long had a problem with its limited ideas about mature workers. Mark Zuckerberg is notorious for stating, in 2007, that “young people are just smarter”, reflecting the often-blatant ageism in many born-digital companies.

How can HR challenge ageism in the workplace?

Older workers hide age to beat bias

Older workers’ employability is an HRD responsibility

Tech companies focus on youth because they employ a steady stream of new engineering graduates who know the latest new technologies. These companies often employ brutal work styles like long hours, which can be a turn off for older workers who want more flexibility.

On the other hand, I think age discrimination is in decline since the early days of the internet because many of the millennials who started this theme are now the ‘older ones’ anxiously looking over their shoulders at gen-Y/gen-Z who have newer, more modern skills.

Ultimately, personal experience is key rather than age. Those who grew up in the era of the mainframe computer have more experience to offer simply by dint of how long they’ve been making IT work for business.

Older workers have seen this technology before when it had a different name, so they can offer useful perspectives. In fact, most new technologies are built on existing or older ones, so older technologists can pick up the nuance of new technologies even faster than young people. 

At the same time, it’s important to push a culture of growth for people at all levels. New approaches (minimally viable products, design thinking, agile) are ‘new’ to older workers, but the whole company benefits if they are taught them.

Leaders should create a culture of inclusion that respects every individual’s ability to learn, grow, and adapt. Companies who understand this can train, engage, and develop their older workers in powerful ways, building a more inclusive company and inclusive experience for customers, and operate in their markets more successfully.

Finally, take practical steps to stop any possible, even inadvertent, age discrimination.

Encourage older workers to take on new projects and get up to speed with new technologies, teaming up with the young hot shots. Plus, promote young workers into management so they start to understand and value their older workers.

CEOs also have to be very sensitive to these issues and help make sure older workers are given lots of opportunities to grow - just like everyone else on the team.


Josh Bersin is a HR analyst, educator, and thought leader in the global talent market.


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