Law in practice: Age discrimination – A mature approach at the Co-op

Despite being launched in a flurry of publicity, last year’s anti-ageism laws still seem to be causing difficulties for UK employers.

The Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006 became law last October, and despite a wealth of guidance for businesses, more than 600 claims have already been made under the new rules.

Various surveys also suggest that many firms are struggling to adapt, with the spectre of ageism still rife across UK plc, especially around recruitment.

The Co-operative Group employs more than 86,000 people at around 3,500 outlets across the UK, in a very wide range of sectors. The businesses in the group can be anything from supermarkets to funeral directors, employing staff of all ages.

Angela Jones, head of diversity at the group, says it was vital to get the planning and policies right because of the nature of the business and the wide range of employees at the organisation.

“We really wanted to get it right and we decided to go beyond the legal requirements. We want to attract and engage the best people regardless of age. We tried to look at it as more of an HR issue than a purely legal one,” she explains.

Changing mindsets

The employee age range encompassed the whole spectrum, with the average age of staff in the travel business being around 30, while the company’s funeral directors had an average age of 50. The Co-operative set out on a major 12-month planning exercise in 2005, and after conducting research across the group decided to scrap the retirement age altogether.

“We started by going through all our policies and procedures to remove any ­reference to age, but more importantly we had to get people within the organisation to stop thinking about age – young or old.

“We had to try to shift people’s cultural mindset because society has become so used to people being forced to stop working at a specific age,” she says.

Once the plans had been put in place, Jones cascaded out a specially designed training programme to all managers on dealing with age and how to cope with the impact of the new regulations.

However, the removal of a compulsory retirement age was naturally the major talking point, and Jones was keen to position the policy as one of choice for each employee and not something that was being imposed.

“We asked staff when they wanted to retire and the majority said they wanted to keep going until about 70. That reassured us that this was the right thing to do for the business and our own people,” she adds.

Changing demographics

The scheme has proved so successful that the organisation now employs 853 workers over the age of 65, and Jones is confident that will increase further in the next few years.

“That’s 850 people who would have walked out the door taking all their experience or not been able to join us in the first place. That would have meant the added recruitment costs and difficulties associated with filling those vacancies,” Jones adds.

The Co-operative also had to look closely at performance management, especially where people have gone beyond the traditional retirement age. Everyone in the group is now assessed on a set of individual, agreed targets.

There has also been a drive to include younger workers, and the group has removed the age range for all jobs within the group.

Hiring has also seen an overhaul, and Jones actively selected recruitment firms that could clearly demonstrate a commitment to diversity and an understanding of the importance of age as part of the mix.

“The demographics of Britain are changing and that is going to hit all employers. We want to go beyond the legal requirements and use this as part of an integrated diversity policy that shows potential recruits we value talent regardless of age.”

In 5 steps

  1. Get the practical issues, such as overhauling policies and procedures, done thoroughly to remove any age bias across the organisation.
  2. Engage with people to find out exactly what staff, customers and stakeholders think.
  3. Try to change the mindset around age. You need everyone to think about talent, and not just a number.
  4. Scrap the retirement age. It makes things far easier, shows commitment from the top and challenges the negative perceptions around age.
  5. Think about age as a diversity issue, like you would for race or religion.

Amanda Jones,
Head of diversity 

Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006

The legislation banning age discrimination in the workplace came into force on 1 October 2006.

  • The rules cover age across recruitment, training, promotion, redundancy, retirement, pay and pension provisions.
  • Direct and indirect discrimination on the grounds of age are now outlawed. Employers cannot actively look less favourably on someone because of their age and must ensure that all policies and selection criteria are free of bias.
  • Employers can be held responsible for age discrimination by staff.
  • Harassment or victimisation because of age cannot be justified.
  • Companies must be able to ‘objectively justify’ the retirement of staff under the default retirement age of 65.

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