Whoever coined the phrase “40 is the new 30” probably never worked at a technology startup. Entrepreneurs are notorious for hiring tribes of 20-something workers apparently willing to work longer than the post-industrial, 40-hour work week. (At least that’s the story line.) But perceptions of ageism, like the ones documented in Dan Lyons’ infamous memoir about HubSpot, aren’t limited to up-and-coming companies.
An age-discrimination lawsuit filed in mid-August against HP Inc. (HPQ) and Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) by four former employees accuses the pre-break versions of these companies of laying them off and transferring their jobs to younger workers. What’s more, they accuse the tech giant of putting a system in place to encourage this practice.
Their complaint, which seeks class-action status, suggests that these employees were deliberately targeted for dismissal because of their age (all of them were older than 40 when they were let go) as part of CEO Meg Whitman’s master plan to move to a younger workforce. As evidence, they cite comments Whitman made back in 2012 to analysts about HP’s need to “reshape and recalibrate” its labor pyramid to include more younger people: “If you don’t have a whole host of young people who are learning how to do delivery or learning how to do these kinds of things, you will be in [for] real challenges.”
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Taken on its own, Whitman’s comment is pretty innocuous. Certainly, no one could blame any manager for hiring with future succession in mind. Or for looking for candidates who have experience in newer skills, such as digital design or social media experience. Or for looking at a whole gamut of factors—from salaries to past performance—as a divining rod for deciding who stays and who goes during periods of belt-tightening. The suit suggests, however, HP went too far to make room on the payroll for younger workers. And Whitman’s mention of recalibration could prove problematic.
As you might expect, both companies plan to defend themselves against the charges. But when you consider all the rightsizing happening right now at giant tech companies to prepare for the reality of cloud computing and digital transformation—I’m thinking especially of you managers at Cisco and IBM—you can expect the age question to draw far more scrutiny in coming months. The real question should be: Who has the best understanding of your customers, regardless of their birth date? As in all other hiring matters, diversity isn’t just the safest approach legally, it’s the wiser choice.