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