Age of reason

Take up of the voluntary code of practice on age diversity has been disappointing
and legislation to tackle age discrimination is due. Yet, explains Denise
Walker, head of corporate personnel at Nationwide Building Society,
establishing a non-discriminatory policy can only benefit the entire

Nationwide’s involvement with campaigning to promote age diversity has
raised its profile as a caring and progressive employer. The building society
recently won the DfEE-sponsored Personnel Today Award for Promoting Age
Diversity in the Workplace and was regarded as having an "enlightened
attitude to age", when we were rated 30th in The Sunday Times, Best Places
to Work For, survey earlier this year.

Because Nationwide is committed to promoting the benefits of a diverse
workforce externally as well as internally, it is viewed as an age diversity
champion. It is a founder member of the Employers’ Forum on Age (EFA). As head
of corporate personnel, I have an active role as chair of the EFA Member’s
Advisory Group and am a member of the Leadership Group, which provides strategic
direction to the forum.

Our expertise and understanding of age diversity issues attracts many
invitations to participate in government consultation and research reports.
These include the Code of Practice for Age Diversity in Employment, the Age
Shift consultation paper by the Department of Trade and Industry Foresight
Ageing Population Panel, and more recently, the Select Committee Enquiry into
Age Discrimination.

Nationwide is the largest building society in the UK, employing 14,307
people, with almost 20 per cent based at our Swindon head office, 12 per cent
at our Northampton administration centre, 53 per cent at our 681-branch
network, and the rest in technology and printing support functions.

The personnel and development division’s aim is to provide, attract, retain,
and develop sufficient, talented and motivated people, who can contribute to
the achievement of corporate objectives. A key objective is to employ a
workforce that reflects Nationwide’s customer base. To achieve this, the
Society is committed to promoting age diversity in the workplace.

We have many drivers for promoting diversity, both internally and in the
external market place. Our two key sites are based in Swindon and Northampton,
which both have high employment rates. Swindon enjoys full employment, which
often causes difficulty in recruiting for specific job roles.

Promoting a diverse workforce allows us to recruit from the widest pool and
ensures that the best people for the job are recruited and retained to achieve
competitive advantage.

The business benefits that age diversity brings can be separated into three
distinct areas.


– By valuing the contribution of all our employees, improved motivation,
morale and productivity results in improved employee satisfaction. In the
Viewpoint employee opinion survey (2000), 82 per cent of respondents felt that
management supported equality of opportunity for all employees, regardless of

– Employees see a more stable environment where the company is keen to
retain their skills. For the period June 1999-May 2000, turnover for employees
aged 16 to 24 was only 4 per cent (compared with Nationwide’s turnover of 8.95
per cent) and for employees aged over 55, it was 0.6 per cent.

– Promoting the benefits of a diverse workforce is recognition of the fact
that a broad range of employees with different insights and backgrounds can
widen the breadth of knowledge and experience within the organisation, which
leads to greater creativity.


– Nationwide’s age diverse workforce reflects the diversity of its customer
base. This has enabled us to retain the loyalty of existing customers by having
a better understanding of their needs. We can also access new markets through
customers whose needs have been previously been largely ignored or excluded.
This has resulted in increased sales and improved customer satisfaction.

– We know that for every 3 per cent increase in employee satisfaction, there
is a corresponding 1 per cent increase in customer satisfaction.


– Recruiting older workers gives Nationwide access to a wider recruitment
pool from which to select the best person for the job.

– By developing a policy for the retention of employees beyond retirement
age, the Society benefits from retaining corporate memory.

– There are substantial cost savings as a result of reduced employee
turnover, recruitment and training costs. We estimate that it costs between
£5,000 to £8,000 to recruit and train a new employee.

Implementing age diversity

In 1987, following Nationwide’s merger with the Anglia Building Society, the
new Nationwide Anglia lost much of its older workforce, leading to a loss of
experience and corporate memory. The unprecedented growth of the new
Flexaccount and the need to rapidly expand the workforce in Swindon led to the
recruitment of a large number of recent school leavers.

These two factors meant that the workforce composition was biased towards
younger employees. A subsequent increase in turnover prompted Nationwide to take
positive action to bring back the stability brought about by mixed aged teams.

Actions taken at this time included using targeted advertisements to attract
a wide age range of applicants, removal of age bars from all advertisements and
the inclusion of age discrimination in the Equal Opportunities policy. Since
then our commitment to age diversity has been a key strand of the building
society’s equal opportunities and diversity strategy and Nationwide has
developed an age strategy based on promoting the benefits of an age diverse

We take a holistic approach to diversity, and our policies and practices
focus on valuing the contribution of every employee, by striving to meet their
individual needs to enable them to give their best to the business. Corporate
personnel has a co-ordinated approach to developing these policies and
procedures, and although the diversity team takes overall accountability for
ensuring age diversity, each team contributes its expertise to developing and
implementing positive and inclusive strategies for managing an age diverse

A good example of this is the recent flexible retirement project, which
involved joint working across the diversity, employee relations, rewards and
pensions teams. Responding to demand from within the business, the project
aimed to create greater flexibility for older workers to continue working at
Nationwide beyond normal retirement age.

To facilitate this, the Pension Fund Trust Deed and Rules has been improved
to enable employees to continue in the Fund until aged 70. Having already
undertaken this work, we welcome the Government’s recent plans to abolish the
national retirement age. As head of corporate personnel, I believe that this
company has recognised the business benefits of an age diverse workforce for a
long time, and I am pleased that the new legislation will encourage other
organisations to recruit and retain older workers.

Recruiting and retaining older staff

Another initiative that has been vital in achieving age diversity is
telephone interviewing. In 1997, Nationwide worked with Gallup to develop a
telephone interviewing process to recruit customer advisers in the retail
branch network. The preliminary assessments of candidates were based on
objective skills criteria already demonstrated by the existing best sales
people. Basic details and equal opportunities information were recorded and
"knockout questions" were included which covered general areas such
as security and availability.

Arrangements were then made to contact the candidate at a convenient time
and date by an interviewer who was trained in selection procedures that
included how to avoid prejudices and stereotypes. One of the key benefits of
this approach is its objectivity and the reduced risk of assumptions being made
based on appearance and qualifications.

The telephone interviewing process has been developed over the years and has
been instrumental in achieving an age diverse workforce. It is now applied to a
wide range of appointments at all levels, including senior customer advisors,
financial consultants (branch and mobile), senior branch managers and retail
management trainees.

Recognising loyalty is the key to retaining experienced employees, so
Nationwide’s Recognising Loyalty Scheme gives awards for 10, 20, 30 and 40
years’ service.

Spreading the word

In addition to specific projects and initiatives, we’ve achieved an age
diverse workforce by selling its benefits to the board, senior managers across
the business and other personnel managers. Responsibility for promoting age
diversity is spread across the business.

The Diversity Agenda is overseen by the Promoting Equality of Opportunity
Group, which is chaired by the personnel and development divisional director,
with membership comprising of heads of business areas. This high-level group
contributes ideas on our diversity strategy, regularly reviews workforce
composition, and monitors external benchmarking data. Age diversity is one of
the Personnel & Development Division’s Key Performance Indicators. Targets
are set annually and progress reviewed on a quarterly basis by the
"Promoting Equality of Opportunity Group".

Internal communication is also critical and articles are included in the
employees’ news magazine Nationwide Live, the monthly audionews programme and
the Intranet. This has led to changing attitudes and practices to ensure that
age discrimination does not feature in recruitment, selection, training and
development, promotion, retirement and redundancy.

The outcome of Nationwide’s commitment to promoting age diversity in the
workplace is that both the corporate objectives and those of the personnel and
development division are met. From recruitment through to retirement, we feel
that Nationwide has demonstrated that real business benefits can be achieved by
embedding age diversity into all employment practices.

Avoid age discrimination in the workplace

– Explain the business benefits of an age diverse workforce and why action
needs to be taken.

– Ensure a link is made to the corporate business objectives.

– Obtain top-level commitment to age diversity issues.

– Communicate the benefits of age diversity to employees and more
importantly, to line managers.

– Integrate age diversity into all personnel policies, so that employees at
both ends of the age spectrum are not seen to be treated favourably.

– Ensure diversity awareness training for the people who are involved in
recruitment, selection, training, conducting performance appraisals, and those
who have line management responsibilities.

– Identify ways that performance can be measured and regularly report on
progress to senior management. This keeps age diversity on the agenda.

– Listen to the views on age diversity from employees as this can lead to
improvements in policies and procedures.

– Promote age diversity internally through the use of employee case studies.

– When developing procedures, take into account the views of managers,
employees and operational personnel teams, so that they have ownership and
"buy in" to the final product.

Age diversity achievements

– Nationwide won the Personnel Today Award for Promoting Age Diversity in
the Workplace (November 2000).

– Nationwide was featured as a case study in the Government’s Code of
Practice for Age Diversity in Employment.

– Age is included in the annual employee satisfaction survey and in 2000, 82
per cent of respondents agreed that management supported equality of
opportunity regardless of age.

– Age is included in the Managing Diversity Key Performance Indicator and
the target was exceeded in the financial year 2000-2001.

– The benefits of age diversity are regularly communicated to business
through articles on the Intranet and employees’ news magazine and audiocassette.

Nationwide’s workforce profile

– Twenty two per cent of employees were aged under 25 and almost 10 per cent
of employees were aged 50 and over in February 2001 (compared with only 0.3 per
cent in the late 1980s.)

– Five per cent of employees recruited over the past five years from (March
1996 to March 2001) are now aged 50 and over.

– In the retail network, the youngest branch manager is 21 and the oldest is

– Financial consultants range in age from 21 to 61.

– In the technology division, 22 per cent of employees are under 30, 41 per
cent are aged between 30 and 39, 25  per
cent are aged between 40 and 49 and 12 per cent are over 50 years old.

– Turnover for employees aged 18 to 24 was 0.84 per cent (January to March
2001), compared with the Society turnover of 9.79 per cent.

– Turnover for employees aged 55 plus was 0.15 per cent (January to March
2001), compared with the Society turnover of 9.79 per cent.

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