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Attitudes to older staff must change, employers warned

Speakers at the Employers Forum on Age agreed: with falling numbers of young people and older staff remaining healthy longer, attitudes to age must change.

With just over six months until the Equality Act comes into effect in October, employers, industry experts and the Government have agreed old-fashioned attitudes towards older workers must change.

Speaking at the Employers' Forum on Age annual conference last month, John Wrighthouse, group HRD, Nationwide, said: "People want to do business with people they can relate to and share experiences with. Older customers are more likely to buy from people their own age. We can prove it statistically."

Before 2000, retirement age at Nationwide was fixed at 60; in 2001 the building society increased flexible retirement to age 70, extending this to 75 in 2005. Currently Nationwide has 10 employees aged over 70, with the oldest member of staff now 78.

Drawing on research carried out for McDonald's by Lancaster University Business School, David Fairhurst senior vice president and chief people officer for Northern Europe at McDonald's, found levels of customer service are 20% higher in its restaurants where staff are aged 50 or over - approximately two-fifths of the chain's branches. He said: "A diverse workforce adds value to our bottom line. It is a win, win situation - for customers, staff and the business."

Wrighthouse, however, admitted employing older people can create problems: "Employee benefits are costing us more with an ageing workforce - it adds to the cost of providing our core benefits of personal accident insurance and private medical insurance for longer. We are considering a move to complete flexible benefits, so staff have no core benefits and have an allowance to choose whatever they want."

He added: "We want to keep high performers but we have to be honest - problems exist with keeping on older workers and we have to think differently."

Speaking briefly at the conference, Harriet Harman, minister of state for women and equality, said: "All the issues around age will grow, so there is a need for big changes. In workplaces there is less need for manual strength and more need for wisdom, and we have to tackle the attitude that people are treading water until they become frail and dependent."

For more on the Employers Forum on Age conference and the research for McDonald's by Lancaster University Business School, visit www.hrmagazine.co.uk

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