Countdown to ageism laws

No other issue has dominated the agendas of HR conferences and the pages of the business press more than the UK’s forthcoming age discrimination legislation.

The government’s consultation on the new laws closed yesterday (17 October) and employers are now awaiting the final regulations and accompanying guidance.

Yet all the recent evidence suggests that organisations will be unprepared for the new laws, despite them coming into force in less than 12 months’ time.

The evidence

A study of 1,000 HR professionals and senior managers by law firm Eversheds and Cranfield School of Management shows that employers have a tough challenge on their hands.

It says that only 20% of organisations have done any preparation for the new legislation and a further 20% believe their executive board is not committed to eliminating ageism in their workplace.

A roundtable discussion involving some of the leading thinkers on age, hosted by IBM last week, provided some stark warnings as to the size of the challenge ahead for HR professionals and their organisations.

Negative attitudes

The main problem is that age discrimination in the UK seems to be “a natural state of mind”, according to Shaun Tyson, professor of HR management at Cranfield School of Management.

“There are very deep and ingrained attitudes among managers,” he said. “There is also the common notion of ‘attributional bias’, such as linking a lack of physical fitness with senility.”

Cranfield’s survey also shows that stereotypical attitudes towards age are present among HR staff. Nearly a third of respondents regard older workers as unreliable, unskilled and less adaptable to change.

On the other hand, younger staff are seen as the main culprits for taking sick leave and being less loyal to an organisation.

“Not many employers have addressed the issue of changing attitudes within their organisation,” said Tyson. “It does seem to be socially acceptable. How are employers tackling the attitude question? I’m not sure if they are really,” he added.

Freda Line, head of employer relations at the Employers Forum on Age, said the issue of how to drive this culture change was the point that worried its members the most.

A survey of 1,000 people of working age, published last week by insurers Norwich Union, says that almost a fifth of employees feel their organisation’s culture does not support older workers.

Challenging stereotypes

Philip Taylor, executive director of the Cambridge Interdisciplinary Research Centre on Ageing, believes that in trying to address culture change, many employers fall into the trap of using one set of stereotypes to challenge another.

Earlier this year, Sainsbury’s launched a recruitment drive exclusively targeting the over-50s. Its job ads said that school leavers “need not apply” for its new vacancies, which spanned HR, customer service and in-store jobs.

“This approach could get them into lots of difficulties and 10 years down the line into a mess,” Taylor said. “Employers need to think in more sophisticated ways about challenging stereotypes.”

Aside from the poor levels of employer action surrounding the new legislation, the laws may also end up countering their original intention, according to Line.

She said some firms offered ‘wind-down’ facilities for people coming up to retirement, including reduced hours and the option of flexible working.

“These kinds of policies may become unlawful,” she said. “There are also other length-of-service benefits that may be limited by the legislation.”

This would penalise employers who use these policies to reward loyalty and service, she added.

The UK can learn some cautionary lessons from Ireland, which has had age discrimination legislation in place since 1998. Line said discrimination claims relating to age now accounted for about a fifth of all tribunal cases there. Most were complaints about recruitment and promotion.

Significantly, they also involve younger workers, with staff in their twenties complaining that colleagues in their thirties were often promoted ahead of them.

“Promotion will be one of the hidden issues for the UK and could catch many employers unawares,” she warned.

Mountain to climb

A further concern is what the law will mean for employers that build their brands around certain age groups – for example, fashion chains and technology firms that use young people to model their clothes or promote their goods.

The consensus among participants is that it will take time for the legislation to bed in and for a body of case law to build up.

“The change in law will force employers to deal with the issue and at the same time avoid employment tribunals,” said Tyson.

It would appear, as reinforced by the Cranfield research, that organisations have a mountain to climb during the next 11 months or so to change their stereotypical attitudes towards age.

The biggest concern, says Tyson, is that these damaging attitudes are present at the very top of organisations. They are also prevalent among a significant number of HR professionals – the very people charged with wiping out workplace discrimination of all kinds.

Feedback from the profession: the maturing workforce

The IBM roundtable also addressed the issue of the maturing workforce. By 2025, more than 27% of the UK population will be aged 60 and above. The impending retirement of the ‘baby boomer’ generation – those born between 1946 and 1964 – will leave huge gaps in organisations’ skills base.

Philip Taylor, executive director of the Cambridge Interdisciplinary Research Centre on Ageing
“There is a view that the end is nigh for employers, but I don’t believe that. Employers don’t need to panic, but we do have to resist this crisis rhetoric about pensions and remaining competitive.”

Shaun Tyson, professor of HRM at Cranfield School of Management
“Employers will not sit back and accept falling profits because of a shortage in talent. They might have to change the nature of work and introduce new technologies to make people work smarter.”

Freda Line, head of employer relations at the Employers Forum on Age
“The talent pool is shrinking and this is exacerbated by discrimination against people of all ages. That is what holds employers back. It is astonishing how early people are written-off in the workforce.”

Mary Sue Rogers, IBM global practice leader, human capital management
“Employers need to get better at talking to employees about their life plans and create an environment where they can help them manage those plans.”

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