An IBM employee with a spotty performance record claimed his firing was the result of age discrimination. As evidence, he produced a text message between two HR managers at IBM in which one asked about the employee’s “shelf life.” The fired employee also claimed that an employee retention program at IBM called “Project Blue” was an allusion to blue rinses used by older people. After being sued, IBM denied the allegations of age discrimination and claimed the employee’s firing was the result of his poor performance record.
A federal appeals court in Oklahoma recently found in favor of IBM and dismissed the employee’s age discrimination case. The appeals court acknowledged that the “shelf life” comment could be interpreted as an age bias statement, but there was a more innocent explanation for why the HR manager used that phrase relating to the employee’s pending billable workload that the court found more plausible. And the court outright rejected any age bias associated with the name “Project Blue,” given that IBM is sometimes referred to as “Big Blue.”
While IBM ultimately prevailed, this case is a good example of how managers who handle employment matters need to be extra careful about what they put in writing and be sensitive about how phrasing that is intended as innocuous could be interpreted as being discriminatory.