Age ain’t nothing but a number…

Age discrimination seems quite obvious to me. This legislation is a no-brainer. How on earth can you discriminate on the grounds of age when our population is clearly getting older?

Where do you draw the line?

Many a client – both line managers and HR – has requested someone aged 25 to 35 for a particular role. The following conversation would then follow: I would ask if a 36-year-old would be OK for the job; then how about a 37-year-old? I gradually increased the age until they stopped me to ask why I was doing this. My answer to the question would always be: “Well, I need to work out at what millisecond a candidate has become too old. It would be a shame if I was conducting an interview and, at the start, the candidate was within the age range, but by the time I had briefed them, they were too old for the position.”

Preconceived ideas

If Sir Richard Branson was in the running, recruiters would hardly turn him down, and yet he is outside the profile at the ripe old age of 56. On paper, numbers conjure up a stereotype that is hard to ignore until you actually meet the person and can see their behaviour. This re-occurring conversation just highlights the futility of discriminating on that basis.

But then I realise what a hypocrite I am. I look around at our 80-plus staff and realise that, at the age of 42, I am doing wonders for diversity at PFJ, where the average age is late 20s. Our organisation has a youth culture where we take on a lot of trainees who, by default, have been entry-level graduates or second-jobbers who we have trained up into the role.

Changing attitudes

This legislation is about changing workplace culture. No longer can you aim to have a youthful (or mature) culture in the office. And that in itself, apart from the challenge of complying with the legislation, throws up interesting questions. Does it mean that on a company karaoke evening that we have to search for some Sinatra for ‘Albert’ and ‘Dorothy’ to sing to, while the younger staff members opt for the Arctic Monkeys? Does it mean we have to jack in our go-karting jolly and play bingo instead?

This is a real concern, not just classic stereotyping. Last summer, we took our employees to Madrid, and at 3am in the morning, the whole organisation was in the same nightclub bonding in a variety of ways. That is part of our culture.

Now bopping with Uncle Dave at a family wedding is fine, but your average ‘twentysomething’ is not looking for a repeat performance at the company Christmas party. So is it therefore only natural for employees to want to work with people of a similar age?

Mind you, I would employ Branson tomorrow, if he would have us – which just goes to show that it is not age, but attitude that matters. I am sure he would have been out with us at 3am in Madrid, and I am sure that some of our staff would have been more than happy to dance with him.

So does the law now stipulate that I need to change a successful business that has been built around a youthful culture, or can I get away with replacing Red Bull with Horlicks in the vending machine? Fortunately, as a hypocrite, I think I understand that it is my mindset that is wrong, and I will have to find a way to change it – not least because I am getting older, if not wiser. 

By Paul Farrer, chief executive, recruitment firm PFJ

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