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We need to talk about ageism in the workplace

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Ageism is often overlooked as a form of discrimination, but with an ageing population and increased attention to workers’ rights, employers would do well to take a strong line against it

Age is one of the least talked about and least focused-on of the nine protected characteristics in the Equality Act 2010.

Even worse, some discriminate on the basis of age in ways which they would never dream of doing when it comes to other protected characteristics such as race, sex or sexuality.

For example, most people would be horrified to hear comments linking performance or capability with an employee’s race. However, ‘banter’ about physical and mental faculties declining with age is commonplace. 


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The law isn’t well understood. For example, most managers are aware that asking a female member of staff when she is planning to have a baby constitutes sex discrimination. However, a number of recent tribunal cases have revealed that managers are not as clear that asking an older employee when they are planning to retire constitutes age discrimination.

It is becoming increasingly important that age should form a key part of an organisation’s diversity and inclusion strategy. Listed below are some of the reasons why HR needs to start talking about and focusing on ageism in the workplace:

 

Risk mitigation

There has been a marked rise in age discrimination claims in the employment tribunal (the largest rise of any complaint between 2019 and 2021). Ageist banter and stereotypes as well as clumsy approaches to retirement and succession discussions can all lead to claims with unlimited compensation.

 

Talent management

The demographics of societies across the world are shifting, with birth-rates falling and people living longer. By 2035, over half of all adults in the UK will be over 50 years of age.

There is no longer a set retirement age and although state pensions may be claimed from 66, research has shown that 67% of workers aged 40-65 want to keep working after their state pension age. The upshot is that the over-50s represent a growing pool of available workers which, with the war on talent, it makes little sense for employers to ignore.

 

Wellbeing

With a renewed focus on employee wellbeing, it is important to create support systems to address the challenges faced by employees at different stages of life to ensure an inclusive approach for all. Clearly this includes initiatives which focus on the needs of younger employees (e.g., evidence demonstrates that Generation Z suffer higher levels of anxiety and stress) but will also include those of older workers (such as menopause or pensions provision).

So, what should HR be doing to support the eradication of ageism in the workplace?

A key first step is making managers and HR aware of their legal obligations. Specifically, that retirement is not automatic, and any enforced retirement age will need to be justified. In addition, enforced retirement cannot be used as a response to poor performance or health issues; older staff will need to be dismissed for a fair reason, following a fair process, just like their younger colleagues.

HR should promote a zero-tolerance culture towards ageist jokes and banter, through relevant training and policies.

Finally, HR can assist in identifying what matters most to different age groups and implementing measures to meet their needs. As an example, last month we saw the introduction of company grandparental leave for the first time in the UK.

There is no doubt that dealing with a workforce where the gaps between employees’ ages could exceed 50 years poses a challenge. However, companies that address ageism effectively will benefit from the advantages that a truly diverse and inclusive workforce offers.

 

Tilly Harries is director/barrister and HR support service leader at PwC