A 54-year-old Pennsylvania man has filed a proposed class action lawsuit against IKEA US Retail, LLC over allegations that he and other hourly employees over 40 were denied leadership development opportunities and rejected for promotions because of their age. The 21-page lawsuit, citing suspected violations of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, outright alleges the Swedish furniture retailer makes no bones about its favoritism of younger employees, a preference the complaint claims “is openly expressed at the highest level.”
What’s the Plaintiff’s Story?
According to the case, the plaintiff has worked for IKEA in its Conshohocken store as a “co-worker” since February 2011. Describing the plaintiff’s performance record, the case says the man has “fully met” expectations – or better – during the course of his employment.
The plaintiff claims that in 2013 and 2014, he was assigned the highest overall rating the company can bestow – that of an “Exceptional Contributor.” The man adds he’s also garnered praise from his manager for the example he set for other co-workers, as well as for his “energy and enthusiasm” in his everyday work. The lawsuit claims, however, that the plaintiff’s seemingly exemplary work record was not enough, as the man was assessed by IKEA as “lacking in potential.” From the lawsuit:
“Notwithstanding that [the plaintiff] received all individual ratings of either meets or exceeds expectations in his 2015 annual assessment, his then manager evaluated his ‘identified potential’ as ‘same level’ – i.e., the lowest among the three possible categories (‘high potential,’ ‘good potential’ and ‘same level’).
IKEA’s Human Resources signed off on this lowest assessment of [the plaintiff’s] potential notwithstanding his two previous annual assessments of ‘Exceeds Expectations,’ his previous manager’s high praise, including for his energy and enthusiasm, and her expression of confidence that he will ‘definitely climb the IKEA ladder,’ and his then manager’s overall performance assessment as ‘fully meets expectations.’”
Despite expressing interest on numerous occasions, the complaint says, the plaintiff was denied advancement and promotion opportunities at least four times in favor of supposedly less-qualified, younger workers.
The final straw for the plaintiff appears to have come in October 2016 when he was passed over for the role of Sales Department Manager – Bedrooms and Children’s. According to the plaintiff, his interview for the position was “a sham,” as it seemed predetermined that he would not get the job. The case goes on to note an outside applicant 20 years younger than the plaintiff got the job, allegedly because the individual, according to one of the plaintiff’s managers, was “young and energetic.”
Loads of “Potential”: A Hiring and Advancement Culture Allegedly Rooted in Age Bias
According to the plaintiff, IKEA’s alleged age preferences have festered into a discriminatory corporate culture that affects everything from recruitment to employee evaluation, development, and advancement. IKEA’s managers, the plaintiff says, are known to openly express this age bias, allegedly in lock step with company literature detailing recruitment policies and strategies related to promotions and evaluation of employees’ “potential.”
High, Good or “Same Level”
IKEA managers, the lawsuit says, are instructed from the top to evaluate employees and make development and advancement decisions based on whether an individual is “high potential,” “good potential,” or “same level.” While every large corporation has its own method by which it measures workers’ performance, the plaintiff takes issue with the criteria behind IKEA’s “potential” classifications. From the lawsuit (emphasis ours):
“IKEA’s literature indicates that its identification of an employee’s potential is based on non-objectively measured factors subject to stereotypes regarding older workers, including, without limitation, that they lack energy, will want to retire and not remain in the workforce for many years, and that they lack learning agility."
The plaintiff charges that a manager’s determination of a worker’s supposed “potential” does not seem to correlate with whether he or she meets or even exceeds expectations in their position. In support, the plaintiff again cites IKEA literature that reportedly provides two examples of employees who “exceed expectations.” Yet, one of these employees is rated as “high potential” and the other as “same level,” the case says. The literature reportedly describes the “high potential” employee as demonstrating “youthful enthusiasm,” the complaint says, while the “same level” worker is described as “having been there longer” and liking a stable environment.
“A manager’s determination of an employee’s ‘identified potential’ is infected with age bias,” the case asserts.
The Aspire Program
The lawsuit further props up its claims of inherent age bias in IKEA’s personnel pool to its now-defunct “Aspire” Leadership Development Program that the case says sought to identify “high potential” employees. The plaintiff familiarly argues that while IKEA positioned the program as a training tool “designed to support identified high potential co-workers,” the company never indicated exactly how it came to its conclusions about workers’ potential for upward movement. To the plaintiff—who the case says applied for and was denied entry into the program twice—reaping any benefit from Aspire was out of the question for older IKEA employees:
“IKEA selected for its Aspire program younger employees in their twenties, and rejected the applications of its older employees.
Younger employees who have successfully completed [the defendant’s] leadership development programs, including Aspire, have been promoted into management level positions.
IKEA has denied older coworkers the opportunity to even compete for development and training opportunities.”
Who’s covered by this lawsuit?
The lawsuit seeks to cover all current hourly IKEA employees who, since January 20, 2016, were 40 years or older and denied leadership development opportunities and/or rejected for a promotion.