How to manage older workers

Rather than worrying about the consequences of any policy on mandatory retirement, HR should see forthcoming legislation as a golden opportunity to further promote diversity within the business.

Before the end of 2006, businesses must comply with age discrimination regulations, as set out in the EU Employment Framework Directive. The directive gives the Government some discretion over how this is implemented, but it has yet to announce its policy.

Discussing the issues surrounding age and retirement, the HR team at South West Trains, led by Personnel Today’s guest editor Beverley Shears, felt that this is an area where HR can lead the business.

The main message is rather than looking at the negative impacts of age legislation – and any problems it may cause – HR should accentuate the positives.

“There seems to be an implicit view that as people get older, they become somehow ineffective, less employable and less worthy,” says Margaret Kay.

“We spend a lot of money training up people who are extremely skilled, so if we can keep them beyond the point they currently leave, that can only be good.”

Shears agrees the real issue is not an individual’s age, but their performance. “You don’t suddenly turn into a non-performer when you hit 65, but I do think discussions about poor performance have to be open and direct, whether the individual is 17 or 77,” she says.

“Of course there is an issue surrounding physical health – and a lot of our jobs demand it – but there is no problem providing people are capable,” Shears adds.

Performance management has been flagged as a chief concern for Personnel Today readers when asked about potential HR problems surrounding retirement age. In particular, the suggestion that HR practitioners might not tackle performance issues when they know compulsory retirement is imminent.

Shears concedes this may be a problem for some employers. “I don’t doubt some have gritted their teeth and waited out the problem with some employees. But I think it’s much more important that you are open and direct with staff about performance and health,” she says.

“If you have a good relationship [with them], there’s nothing wrong with having that type of conversation.”

However, those concerns become more acute when people have to stay at work because of pension difficulties. Then you have employees within the organisation who really don’t want to be working.

“It’s that which could come back to bite us,” suggests Kay. “You will have issues of performance and succession planning when there are staff stuck in jobs and people behind them trying to progress.”

Shears believes the vast number of ordinary people will have to work until they are 70 just to have a living pension. “This could cause huge problems with managing motivation, and you will get increased levels of presenteeism rather than ‘I want to be here because I love my job’,” she says.

“It’s all about individual choice – you have to help the people who don’t want to stay in employment all their working life, but also support those who do.”

“So there are some potential dangers, but it is HR’s job to make sure that it’s dealt with in the right manner. You have to be more ‘modern’ about your employment practices,” Shears adds.

From an occupational health perspective, the challenge will be managing attendance. Barbara Davenport says companies may experience a decline in short-term absence, but a greater number with long-term chronic problems. Obviously, she says, this will be difficult to manage and a bigger drain on resources.

Kay believes when you deal with people – whether selecting them for redundancy or because their performance is not as good as it should be – then the age element is totally immaterial.

“I’d like to think most companies would take a view that you deal with people on an individual basis and it doesn’t matter if it’s to do with age, sex, the colour of their skin or their religion.”

Linda Castle adds that it’s vital that companies as a whole recognise the importance of a diverse workforce. Then you shouldn’t need to train people to manage older people – they should respond to whoever is sitting in front of them.

Managing older workers is by no means a hindrance, says Shears. She points to B&Q, which employs more mature people. “It has created a huge business advantage around the fact that when people are doing DIY, they actually value older, wiser counsel.”

Overall, the team agrees that any problems surrounding retirement age are going to be dependent on how professional a company is in its approach.

The team urges their peers in HR to make good use of the time between now and 2006, and re-assess any working practices that may be problematic.

Kay draws parallels to the situation when the right to request flexible working was introduced. “HR people were saying it was going to be awful for the industry. Actually, it hasn’t been that big an issue for us, and I get the feeling this could fall into the same category.”


  • Beverley Shears, HR director

  • Margaret Kay, head of HR

  • Natalie Teesdale, Policy and change manager

  • Linda Castle, head of resourcing and development

  • Barbara Davenport, head of OH

Reader’s choice

We asked readers to send in topics they would like to see Beverley Shears tackle as guest editor. Shears decided to focus on the role of HR in managing older workers, especially if the compulsory retirement age is removed. This was sent in by Jane Bralsford, group HR manager, employee relations & change management, Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council

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