HR needs to get serious about age discrimination laws

Are most HR directors doddering old fools, or simply stupid kids? Of course not. And that’s no way to talk about colleagues with age legislation coming in next year. Yet there must be some explanation for what looks a lot like dithering incompetence.

Consider the results of the Age at Work survey of senior managers that Eversheds carried out with Cranfield School of Management last month.

HR professionals reckon that when it comes to tackling age discrimination, they’re not simply aware, but very aware of the risks (more than 80% of them said this) and of the benefits (nearly 70%). But they also think that other senior managers are aware only to a lesser extent – and that the board is lagging behind them. A majority of employees are thought to be completely unaware. That is surely a cause for alarm, not self-congratulation.

Support from the top

One of the basic axioms of diversity is that without active support from the chief executive, it simply won’t happen. There must be leadership from the top. Yet when it comes to age discrimination, two-thirds of respondents to the survey expected HR to be the drivers of change. How does that work, then?

Changes in practices are needed right across the organisation. Of course, the wording of recruitment advertisements needs to be watched. But what about the language and attitudes of everyone involved in recruiting, developing, promoting or conducting appraisals? That will also have to be checked, and in many cases changed. And so will the casual behaviour of all employees. Not an overnight job.

Policies have to be reviewed and revised. What is your current normal retirement age? If it is below 65, do you have the business case ready to justify it?

Flexible working

Then there is the right for people approaching retirement to request that they continue working on a flexible basis. Has any work been done on assessing the likely level of such requests in your organisation, and the implications? Or on how they will be managed?

Age impacts very widely – after all, we all have an age. More than 40% of the 1,070 managers who responded to the survey said that they themselves had experienced age discrimination.

HR professionals should really be on top of this. After all, we’ve been here before – with gender, race, disability and religion. We know the risks: there will be no ceiling on the potential settlements. Older employees suffering discrimination come with a lot of service liability – just look at the US case of an 84-year-old prison surgeon who was awarded $20m this year.

Face facts

True, some of the managers surveyed have done all the right things. One in five say they have already made the necessary changes, that the board or chief executive is very aware of the risks and benefits, and that sponsorship for the programme comes from the very top. But what about the rest? More than three-quarters in our survey are no further than the planning stage.

HR wants its seat at the top table in every business. Right now, too few are earning that place through their approach to age discrimination. They are failing their boards by allowing them to sleepwalk into such a hazard.

Robbie Gilbert, employment relations consultant, Eversheds

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