Long reads

Is age the last workplace taboo?

23 Aug 2018 By Hayley Kirton

Despite people living – and working – for longer, employers are still landing in legal hot water, and missing out on vital talent

Age may be just a number, but employers’ approach towards it frequently doesn’t add up. A survey released in July by the Centre for Ageing Better revealed that just one in five businesses has strategically discussed how to manage an ageing staff, despite over-50s now accounting for almost a third (31 per cent) of the UK’s workforce. And a casual disregard for demographics may be just the tip of the iceberg.

“We’ve been very focused on tackling gender and other forms of diversity – and that’s been really important – but actually older workers… the whole demographics have been creeping up on us,” says Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at London Business School and author of the acclaimed The 100-Year Life.

Dan Jones, director of innovation and change at the Centre for Ageing Better, agrees age hasn’t received the same “visibility” as other forms of diversity. “One of the funny things about age is it’s not someone else,” he adds. “It’s you in the future, and I think that makes it quite hard to think about.”

A report by the influential women and equalities select committee, released this July, warned that age discrimination was rampant in the workplace, despite age being a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. 

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

When approaching people about Now Teach, an organisation which encourages people to retrain as teachers, former Financial Times journalist Lucy Kellaway was reportedly told by one headmaster: “Teaching is a young person’s game.” 

Gratton notes problems frequently arise when older workers are stereotyped in such a way. And Jones adds: “There are plenty of people who are 65, happy to continue working, fit, healthy, still active and engaged. That’s a different experience from someone maybe in their late forties or early fifties who has developed a long-term health condition and feels like they can’t continue for another 20 years.”

Making assumptions can land employers in legal hot water. A judgment published by Watford Employment Tribunal late last year revealed an estate agency lost a claim when one of its directors told a 59-year-old administrative assistant she would be “better suited to a traditional estate agency”.

And in a case reported earlier that year, a Warrington-based company was told to pay £182,000 for dismissing its accountant following a string of “trumped up charges” against him after the 67-year-old indicated he did not wish to retire.  

CIPD HR-inform’s head of legal, Andrew Willis, urges employers to adopt a “zero tolerance policy” towards discrimination and harassment, adding: “If there are any instances of harassment, the company should always undertake a thorough investigation and be prepared to issue appropriate sanctions.”

But it’s not just trips to the courthouse employers should be concerned about. Gratton warns businesses that fail to engage with older workers could find themselves facing skills gaps.

“People forget that people in their sixties now are part of the biggest generational cohort ever born and so it’s not that once they’ve gone there’s masses of people after them,” she says. 

“Arguably, maintaining older, more experienced employees can be highly beneficial for a business, with the company able to utilise their experience to offer key assistance in making business decisions,” says Willis. “Employers should therefore work closely with HR and payroll departments to identify if there are any underlying issues within their organisation that are leading to older workers leaving.”

Government policies can also have unintended consequences and may need a rethink. Speaking in July about her private members’ bill – which, if passed, would lower the minimum age for the national living wage from 25 to 18 – Labour MP Holly Lynch said the current wording of the legislation encouraged employers to specifically plump for under-25s when filling roles so they could take advantage of lower wages. 

However, younger employees can also find themselves feeling like they have been treated unfavourably because of their age. A survey by the Chartered Accountants’ Benevolent Association revealed almost half (43 per cent) of workers aged between 16 and 24 felt they were not taken seriously because of their youth. 

And earlier this year, the Employment Appeal Tribunal ruled the transitional arrangements for judges’ pensions – which financially benefited older judges by allowing them to stay in the scheme either until retirement or for a tapered time period – were not proportionate for meeting the aim of protecting those within 10 years of retirement and had an “extremely severe” discriminatory impact on the younger judges. 

However, there is hope, with Gratton saying the topic of ageism is “moving way up the agenda” in companies she works with. 

And Jones advises employers: “If you open that space for a conversation, you’re more likely to be able to talent plan, you’re more able to think about succession... but, if you don’t have that conversation, then suddenly you can lose people in six weeks to three months and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

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