IBM apologises after outrage over racially insensitive labels

IBM spokesman Ed Barbini said the company's recruiting websites "temporarily and inappropriately" solicited information on job applicants' ethnicity.
IBM spokesman Ed Barbini said the company's recruiting websites "temporarily and inappropriately" solicited information on job applicants' ethnicity.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) - IBM was called out by job seekers for using racially insensitive labels in an online application, prompting an apology from the tech giant.

New York University computer science student Alex Gao said he felt offended after being forced to choose among ethnic categories including "yellow" and "mulatto" in applying for a software developer internship in the US.

"I was appalled to be asked on an IBM internship application to choose my ethnic group, and be given the choice of 'yellow'," Mr Gao wrote on Twitter last week, posting a photo of the application, which included a drop-down menu asking job seekers to select their ethnic group.

International Business Machines Corp has since removed the racially insensitive questions from the application. The 108-year-old Armonk, New York-based company has been working towards enhancing diversity in recent years and announced on Tuesday (Feb 26) that it has appointed retired admiral Michelle Howard, the first African-American woman to command a US Navy ship, to its board. Ms Howard becomes the second African-American woman on the board.

In an interview, Mr Gao said he was shocked to see these outdated and offensive ethnic terms used by IBM, and was upset at being forced to choose yellow.

"I'm a graduate student so I'm in the middle of my application process and I haven't seen this language used on any other applications," Mr Gao said. "I was really surprised, especially to see this coming from IBM, which I generally view as a top technology company."

Another applicant, Mr Rich Park, also expressed outrage at the application.

"Aren't these ethnic group labels a little antiquated? To make matters worse, I couldn't submit my application w/o (without) selecting an option," Mr Park tweeted.

IBM spokesman Ed Barbini said the company's recruiting websites "temporarily and inappropriately" solicited information on job applicants' ethnicity.

The information came from local government classifications still used in Brazil and South Africa, he said.

"Those questions were removed immediately when we became aware of the issue and we apologise," Mr Barbini said.

"We do not use race or ethnicity in the hiring process and any responses we received to those questions will be deleted."