IBM is sorry for asking job seekers if they are “yellow” or “mulatto”

IBM is apologizing for what the tech giant calls an “accidental situation” that offered job seekers racially insensitive terms to identify themselves online. Applicants on an IBM recruitment page were taken to a drop-down menu giving options including “yellow” and “mulatto,” along with Caucasian and black.

The Armonk, New York-based IT services company removed the ethnic questioning after applicants complained about the process on social media. 

New York Web designer Richard Park expressed his frustration with the choices presented, which he noted left him without the option of bypassing labels he termed “a little antiquated.” Ultimately, he selected “yellow” and “coloured,” he said on social media.

“I was appalled to be asked on an IBM internship application to choose my ethnic group, and be given the choice of ‘yellow,'” Alex Gao, a New York University computer science student wrote in a tweet. He also posted a photograph of the application and its list of ethnic group options.

IBM acknowledged its recruiting websites “temporarily and inappropriately solicited information concerning job applicant ethnicity, based on local government requirements in Brazil and South Africa.” Still, the interactive-design internship that prompted the outcry is a position based in the United States.

The objectionable questions were removed and “we apologize,” an IBM spokesperson emailed. The company bases its hiring solely on skills and qualifications and is taking steps to make sure the scenario does not happen again, he added.

IBM, led by Chairman, President and CEO is Virginia (“Ginni”) Rometty, has strived in recent years to increase diversity at the more than century-old company, and this week appointed to its board of directors the first African-American woman to command a U.S. Navy ship, Admiral Michelle J. Howard.

IBM CEO Ginni Rometty hopes “new collar” skills will bridge digital, AI divide

The company also faces lawsuits accusing it of discriminating against older employees, a claim IBM refutes.

The accusations about its firing practices came in a class-action suit last September, months after a ProPublica report said IBM had dismissed more than 20,000 workers older than 40 in the last five years as it strove to prune its workforce in high-wage areas and rebuild a younger base of employees.  

IBM, which employs almost 400,000 people worldwide, including tens of thousands in the U.S., rejects the scenario. 

“Changes in our workforce are about skills, not age,” a spokesperson for IBM emailed CBS MoneyWatch last September. “In fact, since 2010 there is no difference in the age of our U.S. workforce, but the skills profile has changed dramatically. That is why we have been, and will continue, investing heavily in employee skills and retraining — to make all of us successful in this new era of technology.”

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