Ageism: the same old story

Despite the Government’s code of practice, ageism is still all too obvious in the workplace and calls for legislative force are growing louder. Dominique Hammond reports

Last summer the Government published a code of practice to encourage employers to take a stand against ageism in the workplace. One year on, a review of that voluntary code shows that ageism is still alive and well.

In fact, most employers do not even know the code exists, and of the less than three in 10 who have heard of it, less than a quarter have seen a copy.

The findings of the Evaluation of the Code of Practice on Age Diversity in Employment, the DfEE’s second review of the code’s impact, published in June, have led to a growing call from groups such as Age Concern to legislate against ageism. They argue that awareness raising and spreading good practice have their place, but without legal force little will change.

Others argue that the Government needs to make a more concerted effort to publicise the code. The Employer’s Forum on Age – a network of 168 employers from the private and public sector – says the findings are evidence of the woeful lack of muscle being flexed.

“After a year nobody has heard of the code,” says Ruth Jarratt, development director at EFA. “We have badgered the Government to publicise it. There has been some publicity but you couldn’t really call it a concerted campaign. There has been no consistent lobbying or real work with employers’ groups.

Soap powder

“Their spokespeople need to be out there talking to key employers. We also need some research to back the business case with figures. Maybe you can sell soap powder with billboard adverts but you need a bit more to bring about this kind of change.”

Equal opportunities minister Margaret Hodge says there has been change but it is too early to tell whether it is happening fast enough. As far as the evaluation goes, she says it should not be taken too seriously as the publicity campaign only got off the ground at the beginning of this year, less than six months before the review.

She points to forthcoming campaigns, including mailshots to recruitment consultants, adverts and articles in regional newspapers, and the sponsoring of awards such as the Personnel Today age diversity award, as examples of the on-going drive to raise awareness of the issue among employers. The rolling-out nationally of the New Deal for the over-50s is another catalyst for change, she says.

As reported in Personnel Today last week, the DfEE is to give employers until October 2001 to get the message. By then the Government will have a better idea of whether the voluntary route is working, says Hodge. If it is not it will consider legislation, but this is not a route Hodge favours. “Those countries that have legislation, such as Spain, actually have a worse record on diversity than those in countries that don’t like Sweden and Denmark,” she says.

“What we need is a culture change. Although I accept that a framework of rights can support this, I don’t believe that legislation alone transforms cultures.”

Hodge argues that laws force people to pay lip service without making any real steps forward.

“The last thing we want is for people to get an interview because it is illegal to discriminate against them for their age in the recruitment process, then once they get through the door they are rejected on some other pretext,” she says.

“If legislation worked we wouldn’t have racism. But we are still in a position where a young black man is three times more likely to be out of work.”

Hodge adds that employers are unlikely to welcome any more legislation, but they seem to be split on this issue. The CBI opposes legislation, which it says will be unworkable and will leave employers open to widespread litigation. Local government personnel group Socpo supports it on the grounds that the only way HR can get line managers to change their behaviour is by telling them they are breaking the law. The Employer’s Forum on Age found equal support for and against in a members survey.

“If you talk to the chief executives you tend to get more against legislation on the grounds that employers don’t like red tape,” says Ruth Jarratt, EFA development director.

“But many of the people we talk to are diversity champions so they have a different view.

Convincing arguments

“Our members have come together because they can see the business case in their own organisations. They want to network to pick up tips on how to get the best out of diversity. These organisations have convincing arguments in favour of diversity for the sake of business. What we would like to see is enough change so that legislation wouldn’t be necessary.”

According to the CBI – which helped draft the code – it is up to business to make it work. Concerned that it has not been getting enough exposure, six weeks ago it wrote to the chief executives of its 1,000 largest members urging them to champion the code in their businesses. Trade association members such as the Engineering Employers Federation are being asked to promote it too.

Dominic Johnson, head of employee relations, says the response has been positive and 100 companies have already written back to say what they are doing about tackling ageism.

This is just the kind of action within the business community that Hodge wants to see. She says that business talking to business is “much more powerful than the Government preaching about the advantages of age diversity”.

Hodge believes that attitudes are already changing and that employers can make the transition without the need for legislation. Figures from the last few months show that unemployment is dropping faster among the over-fifties than other age groups – evidence, she says, that the message is at last getting across.

“By the time we carry out the next review of the code I am confident that we will see a big shift,” she says.

Whether the momentum is there or not remains to be seen. What is certain is that if employers do not want legislation, the time to act is now.

• The code is available free from DfEE publications. Tel: 0845 6022260; fax: 0845 6033360

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