All bar none

The business

JD Wetherspoon is a chain of 653 pubs, with a head office in Watford. It employs around 18,000 staff, of whom approximately 13,000 are bar staff. In the personnel, training and recruitment departments, there are around 30 employees.

The company sees itself as innovative and forward-thinking – it was the first pub chain in the UK to declare itself non-smoking, and has already made 49 of its pubs smoke free.

The challenge

Sarah Carter, recruitment manager, says: “The perception of our industry is that we only hire young people, and we want to change that. We find that older bar staff are better able to relate to older customers, and this can affect how well we serve those customers. Also, in October 2006, the Employment Equality (Age) Regulations are going to make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of age, so it’s important we get this sorted out as soon as possible.”

The solution

In August 2005, the company decided to gain accreditation from Age Positive – the division of the Department for Work and Pensions responsible for strategy and policies on age and retirement.

However, getting this accreditation was no easy task.

“We had to fill out an application form demonstrating our good practices in this area, including quotes from older and younger employees, providing an example of how we are age positive, and enclosing press cuttings that highlighted how we approach the subject,” Carter explains.

Wetherspoons has worked closely with Jobcentre Plus to hire older staff, and with the Employers Forum on Age (EFA), which has given the company advice on becoming an age positive employer.

“We wanted to remove the date-of-birth field from our recruitment application forms, but I was worried about doing that as we can’t have under-18s as bar staff. The EFA was excellent and advised us on a way round this, and now candidates tick one of two boxes: ’16-18′ or ‘over 18’.”

In terms of good practice, Carter explains that Wetherspoons encourages its outlets to recruit solely on merit, and that the company’s recruitment processes are designed with this goal in mind. The company has also recently rewritten all of its training for those doing the recruitment and selection to include sections on age discrimination.

The outcome

Wetherspoons became an Age Positive ’employer champion’ in 2005 and since then has displayed the logo on all of its recruitment material.
Although the company has, for some time, employed staff beyond its official retirement age of 65 – on a case-by-case basis – in February 2006, it decided to scrap the retirement age altogether.

Carter says: “We considered raising it to 70, but the problem with that is that you would be forcing all the existing employees who are already over 70 to re-apply for their jobs, and that’s not what we were looking to do at all. This decision means that our employees can continue to work for the company for as long as they want.”

She adds: “In the past, I was shocked by the number of people who would ask me if, at 30, they were too old for a job with us. Now this doesn’t happen. I just get people calling up thanking me for taking such a positive approach to recruiting older people.”

However, the balance is still in favour of younger staff – 68% of Wetherspoons staff are under 26. Between November and January, this proportion increased, although the greatest increase was in the 16-30 age range, while the number of over-60s remained static.

Only around 400 of Wetherspoons’ work-force are aged 51 or over, and Carter admits the company still has some way to go before its staff are representative of its diverse customer base. But she believes it has made a positive move in that direction.

“Our workforce is increasingly diverse and this helps us in many ways. For one thing, we’re better able to cover our wide range of working hours. Mums usually like to work over lunchtimes, while students tend to prefer evenings.”

Wetherspoons will be running a roadshow in May to coincide with Age Positive Week. Its personnel managers will travel to area meetings around the country and talk about the company’s policies on age. This will coincide with a national marketing campaign promoting the company’s positive approach to age.

If I could do it again…

Carter says: “If I could do one thing differently, it would be to know in advance that we still need to find out applicants’ ages. We’ve removed the date-of-birth box from our application forms, but still need to monitor it for equal opportunities reporting, so we’re now having to ask it in a separate form. We won’t ask until after the application has been successful, so it will have no bearing on the selection process, but it would have been good to have been aware of this earlier.”

Employee perspective

Archie Denny is a 62-year-old barman at The Standing Order pub in Edinburgh.

He says: “I can really identify with our customers, so I have a great rapport with them. Some customers seem to be more comfortable talking to staff their own age. Wetherspoons treats all its employees well, but it’s up to the individual to get out of the job what they put into it. If you are happy in your work, that will come across to the customers.”

Preparing for the introduction of age discrimination regulations in 10 steps

1 Remove age limits from recruitment advertisements. Avoid using words such as ‘young’ or ‘mature’.

2 Think about where your job ads can be placed to reach different age groups. Young people are more likely to use careers services, Jobcentres and newspapers. Older people may rely on community and business networks.

3 Use a mixed-age interview panel in the selection process wherever possible.

4 Members of an interview panel should be trained to have an understanding of equality and diversity policies, and to know that age should not affect selection.

5 Avoid age ‘cut-offs’ for promotions. Focus on skills, abilities and potential. Promote on the basis of measurable performance and demonstrated potential rather than age.

6 Offer training and development to employees of all ages.

7 Encourage all reluctant older and younger employees by using, as role models, workers of all age ranges who have benefited from training courses.

8 Base redundancy decisions on objective, job-related criteria. Automatically making workers over a certain age redundant, or operating a ‘last-in, first-out’ system, will lead to a loss of key knowledge, skills and corporate memory.

9 Agree a fair and consistent retirement policy with all employees.

10 Offer pre-retirement support and, where possible, consider flexible or extended retirement options.

Steve Billam is policy manager at Age Positive.

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