Champions of age

Senior HR professionals believe they are broadly aware of what the upcoming law on age discrimination means, but have a massive job to do in educating their colleagues – not least at board level, where the necessary champions seem worryingly thin on the ground.

A survey, conducted in September by Eversheds and Cranfield School of Management, quizzed more than 1,000 senior managers – mainly HR professionals – drawn from a wide range of organisations across different regions and industry sectors.

Overall, it found widespread and growing awareness among HR professionals of the upcoming law, with just under three-quarters of respondents in the know. But quite how aware employers really are may be open to some doubt, however, because almost a third of those did not identify correctly when it would come into force (October 2006).

Age legislation has been in place in the US for more than 30 years, as many HR managers here will know. But while the focus there is simply on protecting older workers from discrimination, in the UK this protection extends to all age groups.

Encouragingly, the research shows 85% of respondents thinking correctly that UK age discrimination rules are designed to protect all workers. The respondents perceive, quite clearly, a range of business benefits from an age-diverse workforce, putting particular emphasis on gaining wider skills and experience, a more flexible workforce, lower turnover and reduced recruitment difficulties.

Not surprisingly, the legislation was seen to be the biggest driver for change in this area. But population demographics and skills shortages were also rated highly by the respondents – more so than tribunal claims. These responses again suggest that HR sees a clear business case for greater age diversity and an end to age discrimination.

So, how prepared do employers think their organisations are for the new law and do HR departments generally have the matter well in hand?
Only 15% did not say that they would be ready with changed policies and practices within the next 12 months. But there are many less encouraging pointers in the data. Only one in five say they have already made the necessary changes. And the sense that a lot remains to be done is certainly reflected in the responses to more detailed enquiries about specific areas that organisations may need to address.

Not only do more than 40% of organisations have no age discrimination policy at this point, 80% have yet to do any management training, and a majority have yet to ban the use of age factors in recruitment.

Yet respondents rate the awareness across the business of both the risks and benefits in this area as fairly patchy.

Within HR, our respondents reckon that their colleagues are all aware – and more than 80% are very aware – of the risks of allowing age discrimination. They score themselves similarly high when it comes to awareness of the benefits. But other managers and professionals are a long way behind. Indeed, almost one in three line managers are perceived to have no awareness of the risks, and more than half of the workforce is thought to be just as badly informed. Given the vulnerability of organisations to tribunal cases prompted by actions of staff at these levels, this must be a cause of serious concern.

Board-level commitment
Most ominous of all is what the survey says about board-level commitment.

The respondents clearly appreciated the importance of getting the chief executive and board behind the initiative if it is to be successful. Nearly 60% of respondents rated that as very important – a higher rating than they gave to any other factor. Yet when asked who would actually sponsor the necessary changes within their organisation, less than one in four said it would be the CEO or the board. Nearly two-thirds said it would be left to HR.

When it came to assessing the awareness of the risks and benefits, only one fifth rate their CEO and boards as very aware at this stage. By contrast, when our respondents were asked about the impact of particular barriers or obstacles to the process of eliminating age discrimination, well over half rated the attitude of the board or CEO as having great or very great impact. Only one factor rated higher, and that was cost – suggesting that HR has a serious challenge ahead in changing attitudes.

There is clearly a major job to be done in persuading the most senior levels of management, according to the survey. HR and their advisers have less than 12 months in which to turn these attitudes round and drive through the policies, practices and changed attitudes needed to ensure compliance.

Some sectors are clearly more prepared than others. Only a minority of organisations in the education sector (44%) said they had any age discrimination policy already in place. Just 17% of respondents in the finance sector said they had already planned the introduction of policies and practices on age in preparation for the new legislation.

Interestingly, public sector responses were generally little different from the rest. But they did score significantly higher in one crucial area: the perceived commitment of the board or senior management to eliminating ageism in the workplace. The public sector scored 62% compared to 51% in the private sector.

Much interest around the age legislation has centred on the proposed new right to allow older workers to lodge a request up to 12 months before retirement to work flexibly beyond their normal retirement date. Many HR people wonder whether this will be widely taken up. The survey asked the respondents about their own personal plans. Interest was strongest from those who were already over 50, with nearly a third wanting to work on. Of those, two-thirds wanted to do so with their current employer, but less than half wanted to do so full-time.

If HR people themselves are any guide, they had better be ready to deal with many requests to work on a flexible basis beyond normal retirement age. In preparing for this – as for much else in the upcoming legislation – they have much still to do.

Robbie Gilbert is employment relations consultant at Eversheds and also the chief executive of the Forum on Statute and Practice. Emma Parry is a research fellow at Cranfield School of Management

The survey is available from Emma Parry. E-mail

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