Age discrimination is still rife in workplaces, says parliamentary committee

‘Alarming’ failure to enforce law leads to widespread bias, particularly in recruitment

Age discrimination remains rife in the workplace, and particularly in the recruitment market, according to an excoriating report from an influential government committee.

Discrimination, bias and outdated practices exist right across the business world despite having been explicitly outlawed under regulations introduced in 2006, the report from the Women and Equalities Committee found.

The committee relaunched a 2017 inquiry into the topic after repeated concerns that age discrimination legislation was not being sufficiently enforced. It heard evidence from older workers that they were regularly discriminated against in the job market and were disproportionately likely to be selected for redundancy.

Ben Willmott the CIPD’s head of public policy, told the committee that managers often held “biases and myths” against older workers, including the idea that they were “waiting to retire” and would not work as hard, or were unwilling to pick up new skills.  

Meanwhile, bias – and potentially illegal discrimination – was a “significant problem” in the recruitment process, the committee found. It said the recruitment industry had failed to take the “robust” action required, and urged the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to use its powers to investigate the issue. 

In a withering rebuke, the committee’s chair, Maria Miller MP (pictured), said the government and the EHRC had “failed” on the issue, and added: “Age discrimination in the workplace is a serious problem, as many older people have discovered. Yet despite it being unlawful for more than a decade, the scale and lack of enforcement uncovered by our inquiry is both alarming and totally unacceptable.

“As a country, we face serious challenges recruiting and retaining an experienced and skilled workforce. Until we tackle discrimination against the growing number of over-50s, they will continue to be consigned to the ‘too old’ pile instead of being part of the solution.”

The committee said that while the current employer-led approach to discrimination brought some advantages, it did not present a strong enough challenge to discriminatory practices or attitudes. 

Miller added: “The Government and the EHRC… must be more robust in providing a remedy to potentially unlawful working practices in the recruitment sector. Strategies such as Fuller Working Lives and the Industrial Strategy are not coordinated and lack any plan to ensure that existing legislation is being implemented and enforced.” 

Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive of the EHRC, told People Management it was “unacceptable” that ageism still existed in the workplace and pledged that the organisation would carefully consider the findings of the report. 

“Equality in the workplace is one of our priority areas,” said Hilsenrath. “We have taken and will continue to take robust enforcement action, using all of our statutory powers, to tackle unlawful discrimination and ensure that no one is excluded from the workplace. This includes enabling Britain’s employers to benefit from the talent and contributions of workers of all ages.”

New research from the Centre for Ageing Better suggests the issue is pressing. Over-50s now make up 31 per cent of the UK workforce, it said, but in a survey of more than 500 UK employers only one in five said an ageing workforce was being discussed strategically in their workplace. 

A quarter (24 per cent) of employers thought their organisation was unprepared for demographic change, and only a third said they provide support, training or guidance for managers on how to handle age diversity.

The CIPD said the government should consider launching an ‘Age Confident’ campaign to combat stereotypes about older workers and highlight their skills and flexibility.

Anne Wilmott, Age at Work director for Business in the Community, said: “Supporting flexible working from day one and specific paid and unpaid leave for carers will enable employers to retain the skills and expertise of workers of all ages – older and younger alike – which is vital for the UK economy, recognising the UK’s ageing population and workforce. In light of the gender pay gap reporting, we are particularly keen to see measures that support older women, particularly those in low paid roles, to gain, sustain and progress in work.” 

Meanwhile, Recruitment & Employment Confederation (REC) chief executive Neil Carberry added: “Candidate shortages across the UK mean old-fashioned and discriminatory attitudes make no business sense.  Our prospects for growth and prosperity are damaged if any group of people are denied opportunities to work because of who they are.”