Avoiding age discrimination in your company

What would you consider to be an example of age discrimination at work? Perhaps a comment like “Any thoughts about retirement yet?”. Or a manager saying they’d prefer to not consider an applicant for a role because they’re “a bit on the old side”?

These are certainly examples of age discrimination but sometimes it’s not so overt. Would you be surprised to know that a tribunal recently indicated that offering a chair to an older employee but not to younger colleagues could potentially be classed as less favourable treatment because of age? Likewise, a similar observation was made at another tribunal where a judge commented that the use of the phrase “back in your day” would be regarded as age discrimination. And a few months ago a 71-year-old primary school employee won her age discrimination and unfair dismissal claim that referenced the headteacher’s comment of  “We’re not all going to be here forever”.

Not all of these cases were successful for the claimants because of the specifics of each situation. But the fact that the tribunals highlighted these potential risks is something businesses should take notice of. It’s not too big a stretch of the imagination to see how these kinds of situations could crop up in organisations. A bit of banter perhaps, or someone making assumptions about somebody’s future aspirations, or an off-the-cuff comment. They all have the potential to cause upset and significant problems for a business.

Age discrimination might be more widespread than you realise

Research from the Centre for Aging Better recently revealed that half of adults aged over 50 in England had experienced age discrimination in the previous 12 months. Over a third of them had predominantly experienced it in the workplace. In 2021, the Centre highlighted that one in three people aged over 50 believed they’d been turned down for a role because of their age.

Age discrimination isn’t exclusively about older people though. Younger generations can face negative assumptions too, perhaps about attitudes or experience. It’s important that’s recognised as well to minimise the risk across the whole workforce.

Could your company be at risk of issues arising from age discrimination? Here are some steps you can take to reduce the likelihood of it causing problems in your business.

  1. Get the right policies and procedures in place – and share them

An important starting point is to look at the policies and procedures you have. Are they still relevant and effective? Don’t assume employees will know they shouldn’t discriminate because of age. It needs to be clearly articulated through your policies. Check they make clear what’s expected of employees and that all forms of unfair treatment because of age are unacceptable.

Think about how those policies are shared throughout your business. Are there any actions you can take so employees stay aware of what’s required? It should be part of new starter inductions, with periodic refreshers to remind managers and their teams about what’s expected. You can support that with broader training about diversity in the workplace. By understanding unconscious biases and stereotypes relating to age, it’ll help employees be more aware of what they can do to change their approach and be more inclusive.

  1. Make training opportunities available to everyone

Upskilling older employees makes business sense. But it’s something that companies can overlook, as highlighted in Corndel’s 2024 Workplace Training Report. The research revealed that more than half of over 55s surveyed hadn’t received any management or leadership training in their current role. 55% hadn’t had any form of technical skills training on digital tools and technologies, compared to 27% of 18 to 25-year-olds.

Don’t make any assumptions about older employees being more reluctant to develop new skills particularly in subjects like technology, or about their career ambitions in general. Not offering the same training opportunities to employees of all ages could be a form of age discrimination. That doesn’t mean you’re obliged to invest in expensive courses for everyone. It could take the form of opportunities like bitesize online learning, job shadowing and coaching, or giving employees work time to take advantage of free learning resources to upskill.

  1. Check recruitment processes

There are many ways you could unintentionally discriminate in the hiring process. Review job descriptions to check they don’t have any form of obviously discriminatory language like “young”. Consider the language you use in your adverts. Could any terms imply an age bias like “youthful” or “dynamic”? Are you specifying a certain number of years’ experience when it isn’t something you could justify?

Put adverts in places where they’re likely to be seen by a broad spectrum of applicants, rather than just in locations where there’s a specific age demographic. Make sure the application process doesn’t ask for dates of birth. And be mindful throughout the shortlisting and selection process of age-related assumptions creeping in.

  1. Support changing life stages

Employee requirements change at different stages of life. So consider what you can do to be supportive of these shifting requirements. This could include making more flexible working opportunities available. Or having an environment where employees feel able to ask for the support they need, such as individuals going through the menopause.

Age discrimination harms both individuals and companies

Age discrimination can affect many other aspects of the employee life cycle too like reward decisions and redundancy processes. Businesses need to be very careful to ensure they’re not inadvertently putting themselves at risk. If you need advice about any action you should be taking in your company please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Age Discrimination, case law, employment tribunal

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