Viagra jokes could cause headaches

Organisations need to tackle ageist cultures now, or face stiffer penalties when age discrimination legislation is introduced in 2006, legal experts have warned.

Speaking at the Employment Lawyers Association (ELA) conference in Newcastle last week, Michael Rubenstein, editor of Industrial Relations Law Reports, said company culture would be scrutinised when cases are brought. “One person may find a 50th birthday card suggesting he needs to take Viagra amusing, another will take offence,” he said.

Rubenstein said there were still more questions than answers about how the law will be structured, but warned: “Things are happening now that could be used as evidence that an ageist culture exists. The chickens may come home to roost in 2006.”

In Ireland, where age discrimination laws have been in place for six years, age is the second largest field of discrimination: 22% of cases compared to 23% for race and 24% for gender.

James Davies, partner at Lewis Silken and chairman of the ELA’s working party on age discrimination, told delegates it was too early to plan every step that needs to be taken – draft regulations are expected in September – but he said organisations should begin to tackle ageist behaviour anyway.

Sam Mercer, director of the Employers Forum on Age, said the biggest challenge is for HR to sell the age agenda to line managers. She suggested that extensive education programmes using statistics and demographics, showing how diversity solves problems, as well as rewards for action on diversity, could help tackle the policy-practice gap.

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