Laying down the law

With just four months to go until the age regulations come into force, employers are finally focusing on age discrimination.

Ensuring employment policies and practices are lawful is naturally the first priority, but getting in shape for 1 October involves much more than policy review.

In reality, making sure policies are age-neutral is just the beginning; tackling entrenched attitudes and ageist behaviour among colleagues and managers will be a much bigger challenge.

Why do employees need to know?

Ageism is still deemed an ‘acceptable’ area for discrimination. People are much more comfortable discussing (and justifying) negative ‘age’ stereotypes than stereotypes on other equality grounds, such as race or gender. It can be difficult to challenge colleagues’ arguments about experience and gravitas increasing and physical ability declining with age. Yet you are going to have to deal with these entrenched attitudes, and fast.

Challenging behaviour and attitudes among colleagues is probably the most difficult area for any HR or diversity manager to tackle. Take the experience of race and sex discrimination, and the fact that racism and sexism are still workplace issues 30 years after the introduction of sex and race laws.

In a nutshell, your problem is:

  • Age discrimination law protects everyone (anyone can bring a claim)
  • Ageist comments and behaviour are still ‘socially acceptable’ in a way racism and sexism are not
  • Half of your workforce is likely to find some of your age practices acceptable
  • There is no case law to determine what is or isn’t acceptable practice or behaviour.

Difficult or not, you have to take age discrimination seriously. Going by experience overseas, the number of age discrimination claims will rapidly overtake other discrimination claims, and may be combined with other discrimination strands – for example, gender or disability.

Corporate reputation aside, compensation for a successful age claim is unlimited, so there are significant risks for your organisation if you get it wrong.

Employee education is critical as you could be exposed to claims of ‘vicarious liability’, which refers to your responsibility as an employer for the actions of your employees. All of your employees, from the chief executive down, must be made aware of the age discrimination legislation, and what it means for them.

Explain the basics

Experience shows it is essential to avoid overcomplicating the issue. Age laws are complex, but your employees don’t need detailed policy information. Stick to the basics. Explain that age laws:

  • are about fair and equal treatment for all (they are not about favouring the over-50s)
  • apply to all aspects of employment (not just recruitment and retirement)
  • do not affect pension rights
  • will not stop someone from retiring when they want to
  • will not be a problem as long as people treat each other with respect and focus on capability, rather than age
  • will not require an employer to recruit/retain someone who can’t do the job.

How should we inform employees?

Many employers in the Employers Forum on Age (EFA) are already implementing communication and training programmes within their organisations. Their experience shows that you must:

  • be very clear on how your organisation will approach the new laws
  • provide context, and make the business case relevant to your organisation
  • keep your messages clear and simple. Go for a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to ageist comments and behaviour
  • keep communicating the message: ‘it’s about ability, not age’
  • be innovative: you need to change workplace culture – and fast. Use the intranet, posters, payroll campaigns, meetings or leaflets.

You should support any communications campaign with training, and this should be aimed at everyone, not just HR managers. All staff need to be able to recognise ageist behaviour in themselves and others.

Get your employees talking about age

This is a challenging issue. What may seem a meaningless remark to one person may be offensive to another, and you are likely to have to deal with kick-back from staff who think that equality law has ‘gone too far’.

Get employees to understand what ageism looks like by generating debate over what people think is or isn’t ageist. For example:

  • Do you know if your colleagues think paying an older person more than a younger one (irrespective of experience) is age discrimination?
  • Do they think managing people differently depending on their age (eg, targets enforced less or more aggressively) is ageist?
  • Is employing someone of a similar age to ensure a good team ‘fit’ ageist or common sense (everyone needs to get on)?

It is also important to help employees recognise where it may be necessary to challenge their own or others’ behaviour. For example, do staff know whether their work colleagues appreciate being the butt of age-related jokes or comments, or that a birthday card that says ‘over the hill’ could potentially lead to a complaint? These are all typical and seemingly inoffensive behaviours that, when combined with other factors, might lead to a claim.

Use every marketing trick in the book to get the age message across. Employers need to engage everyone from the ‘hip-hop’ to the ‘hip-op’ generation on this issue. Using ageist terms like this should certainly get people talking.

Case study: British Airways

British Airways (BA) has been working on implementing the age laws for almost three years. Since the final regulations were released in March, it has stepped up its communications to staff on this issue and now has a communications plan in place stretching to December 2006, with the expectation that ongoing communication will continue beyond that date.

BA’s staff are diverse in the way they work. The workforce ranges from office-based employees and shift workers to remote workers such as cabin crew and pilots, which means that BA needs to use a variety of communication methods for the different areas of its business.

Much of this communication is through the weekly employee newspaper and the companyÕs intranet, while many departments, such as engineering and Heathrow, have their own newspapers, which publish articles detailing the impact of the regulations. Each area also has its own diversity champion responsible for ensuring effective local communication on diversity issues.

One way the company can ensure consistency across all areas of its business is to distribute the core messages that it wants all its staff to understand. These are incorporated into all communication at all levels across the business.

Alison Dalton, diversity manager at BA, says there is a lot of work to be done to ensure that everyone in the business understands the implications of the age laws and what they need to do differently.

“I think that the greatest challenge will come from everyone thinking about their own behaviour and the impact it has on others,” she says. “We are working on guidelines for managers, using the EFA guidelines as a starting point, and have developed a series of posters using the EFA’s materials. These help to reinforce some of our own key messages.

“We have recently revised our diversity training for managers to include more emphasis on stereotypes and the need to challenge certain behaviours,” she adds.

BA plans to run communication forums in September for all managers to ensure they understand the new retirement process and are equipped to answer staff queries.

“Age affects everyone, so we have to ensure our communications plan covers everyone, including our senior directors and our trade unions,” concludes Dalton.

Our Expert

Sam Mercer is director of the Employers Forum on Age (EFA), the voice of employers on age issues. She represents the EFA’s 160 employers on the government’s Age Advisory Group, which is currently consulting on the future age legislation. She is also responsible for the group’s research programme, which includes work with the Department for Work and Pensions.

Prior to joining the EFA, Mercer ran two parliamentary groups promoting UK manufacturing and design. Each group provided an interface between industrialists/designers and ministers, MPs and peers. She was also responsible for running an employers networking group sharing best business practice.

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