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Discrimination enters a new age. By Louise Druce


It has been nine months since new age discrimination laws were introduced into the workplace and the claims are already coming thick and fast. Louise Druce looks at why older workers are still feeling neglected and what HR can do about it.

It hasn’t even been a year since the new age discrimination laws were introduced but if the tip of the iceberg is anything to go by, the majority of companies are headed for trouble that is going to cost them significantly more than a gold watch and a tidy pension scheme.

While companies such as Asda, B&Q, HSBC and Royal Mail are leading the way in best practice when it comes to introducing robust, best practice age policies, other companies are seriously lagging behind.

Statistics from the Department of Trade and Industry show that around 600 age claims have been made so far that could incur hefty penalties to the tune of around £12 milllion – a figure that could be set to rise dramatically.

“It is still early days for companies to see the full impact of the new age legislation. However, it is significant that nearly one in 10 companies have already received age claims.”

Rebecca Harding-Hill, Berwin Leighton Paisner

“It is still early days for companies to see the full impact of the new age legislation. However, it is significant that nearly one in 10 companies have already received age claims,” says Rebecca Harding-Hill, partner in the employment, pensions and incentives team at law firm Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP).

“Employees’ increasingly heightened legal awareness could lead to a dramatic increase in claims. Employers are particularly vulnerable with regard to this new area of discrimination law which requires a change in attitude for many. If employers are not on top of the age legislation and all its ramifications, age claims could result in a significant financial cost for UK businesses.”

Yet it seems many are still not au fait with what exactly they are supposed to be doing. Figures from the BLP show that 74 per cent of companies who say they want to be compliant feel they require a better understanding as to what age-related action can be justified under the regulations and what will amount to discrimination.

BLP also revealed that 32 per cent of businesses have yet to introduce a retirement procedure. Small companies are worse off as they are likely to have fewer resources to deal with the administrative burden, leaving themselves vulnerable to legal action.

“Many of the employers we spoke to felt that age discrimination is yet another piece of cumbersome red tape for them to get their heads around,” Harding-Hill adds, “but there is no room for apathy towards these new laws and employers must stay ahead of the game.”

It’s personality that counts

One of the main sticking points that could leave employers defending their actions is the recruitment process. Yet, a new report by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), Cranfield School of Management and law firm Beechcroft LLP, showed only 29 per cent of companies had addressed or reviewed recruitment practices and policies since the law came into play.

There are a number of measures that HR can adopt to comply with the law and advocate best practice. For example, even though there is no legal requirement to do so, firms such as HSBC and Asda have removed date of birth and all age indicators from application forms.

Key facts about the age legislation

  • The regulations cover people of all ages, both old and young.

  • The law prohibits discrimination in employment and vocational training, including access to help and guidance, recruitment, promotion, development, termination, perks and pay.

  • A national default retirement age of 65 is in force, making compulsory retirement below 65 unlawful (unless objectively justified).

  • All employees have the ‘right to request’ work beyond 65 or any other retirement age set by the company, which all employers have a duty to consider.
  • “We simply don’t see the point in asking people for their age when it’s completely irrelevant to our recruitment process,” says Asda’s people director David Smith. “We take on the best personality for the job, regardless of when they were born. Our oldest recruit was over 80 when they joined us.”

    The CIPD report also recommends steps such as producing job descriptions or specifications that identify skills, experience and the competencies required to help ensure an objective, consistent approach to recruitment. Online or telephone interviews could also be a way of preventing discrimination based on appearance.

    It is also worth bearing in mind that while half of the respondents surveyed by BLP felt that the new legislation benefits older employees the most, companies need to be aware of all age discrimination.

    For instance, the CIPD report cites the potential minefield of specifying how many years a job candidate should have worked, which could potentially alienate a candidate who is suitable for the job but hasn’t accrued the amount of experience required.

    However, some discrimination is simply ingrained. “You can put in policies that outlaw discrimination but at the root of it is attitude,” points out Dr Emma Parry, research fellow at the Cranfield School of Management. “Stereotypical attitudes to older workers are quite prevalent, even among the HR community. Organisations need to educate and train managers to try to change those attitudes, rather than taking the approach they must do something on paper.”

    Imparting the knowledge

    Of course, the new legislation wasn’t brought in solely to punish businesses that are being discriminatory. It is also about building a more effective workforce and allowing older workers who may not be ready to be forced into retirement other opportunities.

    “Businesses of all sizes are reporting the benefits of employing an age-diverse workforce,” says CIPD employee relations and diversity adviser Sally Humpage. “Namely a higher retention rate, lower absenteeism, increased motivation, greater flexibility and a wider pool of skills.”

    Even way back in 1989, B&Q opened a store in Macclesfield staffed entirely by over 50s. It reported that profits were higher by 18 per cent and staff turnover was six times lower. In addition, there was 39 per cent less short-term absenteeism, 59 per cent less shrinkage and the customer perception of service improved, while the skill base of the workforce increased.

    “Stereotypical attitudes to older workers are quite prevalent, even among the HR community. Organisations need to educate and train managers to try to change those attitudes, rather than taking the approach they must do something on paper.”

    Dr Emma Parry, Cranfield School of Management

    And employees themselves are also able to put their hard-earned knowledge and skills to good use in companies embracing a more diverse workforce, as demonstrated in the numerous case studies that have appeared on the Department of Work and Pensions’ Age Positive website.

    Louise Hallows, a customer assistant at Tesco, previously applied for a job at a bank but was told she was too inexperienced. She now believes she has benefited from a mixed age workforce. “I think that working alongside older employees who have worked here for years helps me mature more quickly. Not only that, I think that having older and younger people working together creates a great atmosphere,” she says.

    At the opposite end of the scale is Stan, who was working half days as an administration clerk at J D Wetherspoon aged 80. “I have always risen early, a habit not easily broken,” he explains. “I do gardening only on sufferance and what I really needed was a good reason to get up and go – although I didn’t fancy working a full day. I’ve never regretted it.”

    Further reading
    For further information about age discrimination, you can visit or

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