Businesses still fail to take age discrimination seriously

Age discrimination laws were introduced last October amid huge publicity and a raft of guidance to help employers understand and embrace the rules. Despite this, the Department of Trade and Industry reports that around 600 age claims have already been made to date.

A survey by law firm Berwin Leighton Paisner provides further evidence that employers are failing to mitigate ageism. The survey of more than 50 businesses across a range of sectors revealed that more than one in 10 has already received a claim. So why isn’t the message sinking in?

Ageism affects all aspects of employment – recruitment, promotion, training as well as redundancy and retirement selection but, according to the Employers Forum on Age research shows it’s particularly rife in recruitment.

A survey earlier this year revealed almost two thirds of people believed the regulations had made little or no difference to the way that people are now recruited, with ageism lurking in every stage – from job advert wording to assumptions made about people’s work and salary aspirations.

This is something that Heather Salway, HR director at recruitment company Eden Brown has also found. “There are still too many organisations that do not have robust recruitment procedures and this makes the decisions they take very difficult to justify. We still get one or two clients who come to us saying they are looking for candidates aged 20-35 and we have to educate them about the rules,” she said.

It seems that employers are still hungry for guidance. “When we asked our clients what subjects they would like us to run seminars on, age discrimination came out top. Employers are still uneasy about the legislation,” said Salway.

However there is already a lot of guidance out there from both the conciliation service Acas  and the Employers Forum on Age (EFA). The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) also published a report this month called Age and Recruitment, providing examples of best practice.

Sally Humpage, adviser at the CIPD’s research and policy team, said that the problem lies not with a lack of guidance, but knowing where to find it. “There’s a lot of guidance out there but it’s all in different places, so employers get confused about where to find it. Because there’s no simple one-stop shop, some firms – especially small and medium-sized companies are still finding the legislation hard to get their heads around,” she said.

One particular area of concern is around the definition of ‘justification’. Agesist treatment can be justified by employers, but according to BLP’s survey, a staggering 70% of companies said they needed additional guidance on this area.

Alan Chalmers, partner at law firm DLA Piper UK, said it’s very difficult to give guidance about justification because what fits one company won’t fit another. “This means generalist guidance on this issue will always be uncertain. This subjectivity means it’s very difficult for employers to understand exactly what is lawful for their firm,” he said.

Perceptions also need to change. According to Chalmers, employers do not seem to view age discrimination as seriously as sexism or racism.

“For some employers, there seems to be an unofficial pecking order of discrimination laws. Many age claims will use evidence of an ‘off the cuff’ comment made by a manager, such as “we need to get fresh blood in”. However the same manager would likely never dream of making a similar remark about race or sex.  Employers need to remember that the law treats all discrimination the same – very seriously,” he added.

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