Following on from last month’s feature on the new age regulations, Kirstie Redford speaks to two heads of HR to see how they are preparing for next year’s legislation
New rules outlawing age discrimination come into force in October next year and with just a few months to prepare, it is up to HR departments to ensure their policies are compliant.
The new law is set to affect HR processes on many levels. From the moment a job is advertised, age discrimination can be an issue, in terms of the wording used.
Debra Baker is HR corporate services manager at disability insurer UnumProvident and is responsible for leading the company’s efforts in preparing for the new legislation. She says wording on job adverts will need to be very tight.
“We’ve had to look at phrases such as ‘with five years’ experience’ and replace them with alternatives such as ‘competent in the area of’ or ‘proven ability in the area of’. This is proving tricky, but it is a valid point that someone with 10 years’ experience may not be any better than someone with only five years under their belt,” she says.
Once applicants respond to an advert, all age-sensitive data then has to be collected and stored in the correct way.
Heather Salway is HR director at recruitment consultancy Eden Brown and it falls within her remit to make the changes needed to prepare for the new law.
Her team now ensures all CVs passed on to external clients and internal managers have the date of birth or age removed. “CVs usually hold that data, but we remove it before passing it on,” says Salway.
Similarly, UnumProvident has changed its application forms to include a tear-off diversity slip, which includes age. This information is used by HR for monitoring purposes, but is not referred to again. “It is stored in HR’s computer system, but line managers interviewing candidates never have access to this information,” says Baker.
The recruiting process has traditionally been a minefield for inadvertent discrimination. At the very heart of the new law is the premise that all ages can do all jobs. So it is important to have strict criteria on which to base hiring decisions. Salway says the best way to do this is to make all person specifications competency-based.
“We ask about key skills, knowledge and behaviour, rather than qualifications, which are often age-related,” she says.
All employees should have the same development and promotion opportunities. Salway says that its management development programme is based purely on competency. “Individual training programmes are designed for each manager based on their own needs and competencies. Age does not predict performance at all, so everyone has the same promotion chances,” she says.
UnumProvident has a similar philosophy. All training courses are available to everyone and promotions are awarded based on a clear capability statement.
The types of benefits provided by employers may need to be reviewed in light of the new rules. Benefits such as health insurance and life cover can be more expensive for older workers, but this will be no excuse for employers to exclude them if they are entitled to them.
Working in the HR department of a health insurer gives Baker a unique viewpoint on the implications of providing cover for older employees. “Most health policies have an upper age limit of 65. So if employees choose to work until they are 70, it could prove difficult to keep that cover in place,” she says.
UnumProvident currently employs two people over the age of 65 and has arranged special life cover for them. The positions they hold do not qualify for health insurance benefits, which are a management perk. “But if we were to employ any managers over the age of 65, we would have a problem,” says Baker. “Legally we could be expected to provide cover for employees until death, which would mean new products with no age limits would need to be developed.”
Retirement options are under the spotlight, with employers expected to support employees’ decisions to keep working in old age, even if in a part-time role. “We have a flexible working policy,” says Baker. “Everyone – young or old – can request flexible working hours, which we try to accommodate.”
At UnumProvident, HR has set targets to plan for an employee’s retirement six months in advance. “We have to keep up with data so we know to write to employees when they hit 64 and a half, letting them know their choices. Either they choose to retire or we set a new retirement date and the whole process starts again. We haven’t been this proactive to date, so this will mean extra work for us,” says Baker.
One option that could be used to reduce this potential workload is to raise the company’s official retirement age. “This would be seen as positive action, but with few employees expected to work until, say 75, it would save the hassle of having to give written notice and keep on top of all staff due to retire,” says Baker.
However, the new legislation will mean all employers have to keep a check on the overall age profile of their workforce. Salway believes that with 160 employees, Eden Brown is too small a firm to warrant a full-scale age audit. “We know what our age profile is without having to conduct an audit. Our workforce includes everyone from 18-year-old school leavers to people in their late 60s,” she says.
Baker is currently working on UnumProvident’s first age audit. “Every year we conduct an equal pay audit, so we’re using the same format to look at turnover, absence and appraisal in relation to age bands. At the moment we’re just getting the data together and it is showing that the average age of the workforce is about 32 years old,” she says.
There are some interesting trends emerging from the age audit that are helping Baker recognise problems areas. “The oldest employees tend to be male, and the youngest female. This could, for example, indicate that women are having children and not returning to work, which is something we then need to address. We’re also finding statistics such as that the highest paid employees tend to be in their early 40s, so we need to find out why this is,” she says.
To ensure the spirit of the age legislation is embedded in the whole organisation, HR also has a responsibility to educate the workforce on what the rules mean.
Working for a recruitment firm, Salway has to ensure that not only her workforce is up to date, but that clients are too. “We feel very strongly that age should not be a factor when recruiting. There is nothing more frustrating than being unable to place someone who is fit to do a job because the company perceives them as being too old. We have a responsibility to work ethically and help educate our clients about discrimination,” she says.
To help with this process, Eden Brown has produced a booklet on age discrimination, which is updated regularly and given to all its clients.
Salway is also introducing additional training sessions. “Regular training will be given to all staff. It’s not just managers that need to be up to date as most staff are client-facing and need to make sure their clients understand the rules. If a client says they are looking for someone aged 25-30, they need to know how to have the conversation about how a 50-year-old could also do that job. For purely operational staff, managers will give briefings on any updates they should know about,” she says.
Baker is putting updated information on UnumProvident’s intranet and has written a paper for the board explaining how the new legislation is affecting policies. Managers will also attend a ‘lunch and learn’ session, providing updates on the new rules.
However, trying to change employees’ attitudes could prove more challenging, says Baker. “There needs to be a change in mindset. Employees would never dream of sending a birthday card to a colleague saying ‘to a big black woman’ but would have no qualms writing a card ‘to the old wrinkly’. I think it will take a couple of years before the new rules sink in,” she adds.
Details of the consultation and an online response form can be found on the DTI website at www.dti.gov.uk/er/equality/age.htm. Further useful information can be found at www.agepositive.gov.uk