What help can the Government give to employers dealing with an ageing workforce? Any practical guidance or incentives?
There are clear benefits for businesses with mixed-age workforces: they can expect a broader range of skills and experience, lower staff turnover, and higher morale from their employees. To raise awareness of these benefits, the Department for Work and Pensions already runs a campaign called Age Positive to inform employers, recruiters and individuals about age discrimination in the workplace.
A practical guide for businesses, called Age Diversity At Work, is also available online (www.agepositive.gov.uk). The guide sets the standard for employers in terms of good practices in recruitment, selection, training, promotion, redundancy and retirement.
Since the guidance was first published in 1999, research shows that the number of employers specifying age when hiring staff has halved. Age Positive also sponsors a category in the annual Personnel Today Awards.
Are UK employers behind their counterparts in Europe on tackling the effects of changing demographics?
We are constantly talking to our European colleagues about their experiences of age discrimination. The message we often get back is that the UK is ahead of the game in terms of raising awareness with employers and helping them prepare for the changes in the law in 2006.
What’s your impression of the public sector versus private sector on older workers?
I think there are some great pioneers on both sides. Employers from both the public and private sectors are supporting us by becoming Age Positive champions and sharing their experiences. They come from all sectors and sizes of companies – from small and medium-sized local manufacturing and engineering companies, to household names such as Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s and Barclays. These businesses have come to realise that a successful workforce has a mix of ages.
There are also some great public sector organisations leading the way – for example, Norfolk Police Constabulary and Barnsley Council in England, Bridgend Council in Wales, and Aberdeen Council in Scotland – which make business decisions that don’t discriminate on age.
Are you surprised by our exclusive research findings?
The research findings are not surprising. All the discussions we’ve had with stakeholders have highlighted the same issues and indicated some similar responses.
They all show that, while most people think age discrimination is a problem, they also think that older people can and do contribute valuably to our companies and our economy. So there are negative perceptions that we need to change, but I expect culture change to happen as companies become more aware of the changes to the law that are on the horizon.
Do you think more should be done to educate chief executives and the board about age issues?
Our work on age issues so far has shown a broad range of opinions on how to handle the issue of age discrimination, so I think it’s definitely something most CEOs are aware of.
What businesses have handled age diversity well?
Asda is a classic example of a very high-profile company that has taken the lead on being positive about older employees. In fact, it is reported to be the UK’s biggest employer of the over-50s. It says that being positive about the recruitment of older workers has actually helped to increase its productivity.
A firm called Hunters Estate Agents, based in Yorkshire, is another excellent example, because it has tried out things such as flexible retirement and job-sharing for older workers.
It recognises that it’s increasingly important for companies’ reputations that they be known as age-diverse organisations. It is also another supporter of the Age Positive campaign.
There are hundreds of firms out there – small and large – embracing progressive policies on age and it’s incredibly difficult to single a couple of them out. I think the lesson for firms here is that being ‘age positive’ is not a burden on businesses. In fact, it can be a real boon, and it’s better to be ahead of the game than to wait until the law changes in 2006.