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Opinion: preparing for age equality regulations

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Training consultant and project manager John Allan explains what business must do to prepare for the incoming age discrimination legislation.


Back in January this year, I responded to the piece HR Radar: How are you handling age discrimination laws? with some thoughts on how to prepare for the age discrimination regulations. This described an awareness and training programme covering senior management, HR, department managers and all other staff.

Some HR managers I know have questioned whether the age legislation really justifies such a top-to-bottom corporate training programme. My answer is that these new regulations will force changes to be made which will eventually affect almost every employer, employee and jobseeker, and also every vocational training provider.

The big problem is that age discrimination in some form or another is embedded in most organisations’ employment policies and practices. Add to that the widespread stereotype views which link age to ability, and we have a real challenge to overcome age discrimination in the workplace.

So how should we take up the challenge? I would start with two pieces of advice which I have been given:

“Focus on age diversity more than age equality, and use age legislation as a catalyst to introduce other changes you need to make in employment practices.”

With this advice come the following definitions of the difference between equality and diversity. Equality is driven by legislation, while diversity is driven by enterprise. Equality, through legislation, sets out a minimum standard of behaviour for employers and individuals. Diversity emphasises that everyone should be valued as an individual, and that we can all offer particular contributions from our different backgrounds, abilities and experience.

As for using the age legislation as a catalyst for change, I agree with those who believe that this legislation will impact on every area of HR. Making age discrimination unlawful will ultimately drive employers to change many of their employment practices. It would be much better for HR to take the initiative and develop a strategy for change, rather than wait to have change forced upon them.

Forecasting the future situation

It might be useful to start by making certain assumptions about the next 20 to 40 years, based on a combination of facts and forecasts from reliable sources. For example, we could assume that:

  • There will not be a default retirement age after 2015

  • Defined contribution pension schemes will be extinct by 2020

  • State pension age will rise by one year every decade

  • Life expectancy will rise by two years every decade

  • Average working life span will rise by two years every decade

These forecasts are quite conservative but the likely consequences could call for
some major changes in HR policies and practices, including:

  • Recruitment – searching for talent in a more diverse labour pool

  • Training – constantly upskilling and updating employees of all ages

  • Motivation– offering rewarding work in a stimulating environment

  • Career guidance – matching work to individual aptitudes, personality and preferences

  • Flexible working –providing the desired work-life balance for all

  • Flexible retirement – providing choice and financial security


and that’s just for a start!

So much for the longer term. But in the more immediate future HR has to deal with the challenge of changing mindsets and ensuring that management and staff comply with the new laws.

An obvious starting point is to review your organisation’s own policies and
procedures and make sure that these are amended to comply with the law. This will not be a simple task if you are starting from scratch.

The legislation leaves room for interpretation, and changes in procedures will often require consultation and negotiations with other managers and staff. In this case my advice would be to:

  • Use consultants with proven experience in the subject, from both a legal and a change management perspective.

  • Involve representatives from all parts of the organisation.

  • Have a member of the top management team to sponsor the work and represent your proposals at board level.

  • Pursue both the age equality and the age diversity agenda.

You can learn a lot from the experience of employers who are already implementing an age diversity strategy. You can find plenty of examples on the Department for Work and Pensions’ Age Positive website. Also you should consider joining the Employers Forum on Age which has an excellent toolkit to help you to age-proof your organisation’s employment systems and procedures.

Preparing management and staff

To tackle the task of changing mindsets about age, I would organise an event for senior management as early as possible, so that they will:

  • Be aware of the demographic trends, their impact on the labour market and their potential effect on the organisation’s workforce

  • Understand the new age legislation and the importance of compliance

  • Recognise the potential benefits of an age diversity strategy

  • Agree a strategy and programme for implementing changes in HR policies and procedures

Depending on the needs of the organisation, its size and the resources available, the event could include

  • A brief review of the demographic trends and their likely consequences

  • Reviewing the age legislation, with input from a legal expert

  • Possibly using theatre to demonstrate the changes in attitude and behaviour which will be needed to comply with the law and avoid age discrimination

  • Introducing the changes required in the organisation’s own employment policies and procedures

  • Discussing and agreeing a plan to disseminate essential information to all employees.

HR will normally be responsible for reaching all managers and staff with the necessary information and training to ensure that everyone in the organisation complies with the age equality regulations. In this case it will probably be necessary for all managers to attend a workshop to:

  • Introduce them to the age equality legislation

  • do some exercises to confirm their understanding

  • learn about changes in the organisation’s employment policies and procedures.

Managers will also need to be trained to pass on the information and training to their own staff.

E-learning

So what can HR do to be confident that all staff will receive a consistent quality of information and training through their managers? One possibility is to use e-learning to inform all managers and their staff about age equality regulations, and include exercises to check their understanding.

The e-learning can be followed by short team meetings, where managers can take questions raised by the programme and introduce their staff to any changes in the organisation’s employment policies which will affect them directly. It would, of course, be best if an HR representative could be present at these meetings to deal with any questions.

As a final tip, if you want to see how an e-learning programme can be used to prepare managers and their staff for the age legislation, you can view a product called Age Equality 2006 on the internet for free by emailing Mark harrison. In this way you can check how well you yourself understand the new age legislation.


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