Be ready for the age discrimination laws

Ageism is the form of discrimination most frequently cited by employees. But the regulations to prevent it – which come into force in October – will provide important rights and responsibilities for every employee and business in the UK.

Between now and October, I’ll be writing a series of columns exclusively for Personnel Today about age discrimination. I want all HR professionals to be prepared, so in each column, I will address key areas that I know you want to be clear about.

Areas of concern

When the government consulted on age discrimination last year, employers told us that retirement, redundancy, occupational pensions, service-related benefits, ‘objective justification’ and ‘transitional arrangements’ were all key concerns. I will address all of these – as well as the important issue of vocational training – over the coming months. First, though, I’d like to tell you why I think the new laws are so important – for society and for business.

Ageing workforce

In its latest projections, the Office for National Statistics indicates that nearly one-third of the labour force will be aged over 50 by 2020. So businesses increasingly need to recognise the benefits of age diversity in the workplace. Add to that the competitive challenge we face from Asia, where rates of growth are unprecedented and wage costs are a fraction of our own, and there is a real need to ensure that all our workplaces are high performers.

The benefits

Treating staff fairly and recognising individual talents and needs are not just the right things to do, they also make good business sense. Employers who recruit from the widest pool of possible applicants are able to choose the best candidates. And this has a positive impact on productivity. When the new laws are in force, it is estimated that annual benefits to employers will be between £83m and £706m per year, depending on company size.

Tackling discrimination helps to attract, motivate and retain staff. It helps employers make the best use of skills and experience. It can lead to a more diverse workforce, new ideas and access to wider markets. Fairness and productivity go hand in hand.

The laws will help to ensure that people are no longer denied jobs or harassed because of their age, and that workers of all ages will have an equal chance of training and promotion.

Get ready

HR professionals will know that laws are already in place to protect workers from discrimination on the grounds of gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, and religion or belief. The laws on age address the final frontier of discrimination. It’s particularly important because age-related issues affect all employees at some stage in their working lives.

The regulations are a huge step forward. Britain will only thrive in the future if it rises to the demographic challenge it currently faces. The age discrimination laws are a key factor in adapting to new challenges, and all of us have a part to play. Employers, in particular, have a crucial role.

With only six months to go, organisations need to start thinking about the age-based aspects of their HR procedures. I strongly urge HR personnel to consult the regulations – and guidance available on the Acas website in late April – for a smooth transition to what will be a genuine revolution for HR.

In my next column, I will address ‘objective justification’ – the tough test employers will have to satisfy to justify different treatment on grounds of age.

By Alan Johnson, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry

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