Legislation should be considered an option

It’s official: the government’s code of practice on ageism is not working –
most employers do not even know it exists. So is legislation the only way to
force employers to take this issue seriously? We canvass some expert views

Clare MCevoy
Human resources manager, CNN

The age debate is a hot topic because of the demographic changes we are
facing. With fewer young people entering the workforce and with the massive
costs of pensions on the public purse, society needs to make sure that people
need to remain in employment longer and to do this, we need to think about the
barriers that exist.

The question is why shouldn’t we help this process by protecting this
category against unfair discrimination, when there is some evidence that ageism
occurs in the workplace.

If we are to take the issue seriously, as we have with other forms of
discrimination, we should consider legislation as an option. The outcome would
be to raise awareness of the issue and by doing so change behaviour. It would
contribute to shifting attitudes towards employing older people, supporting the
message that by encouraging diversity we can add value to the organisation or

In cases where awareness is not high, legislation would serve as a reminder
of good practice. Employers, knowing that there would be a penalty attached to
acting in a discriminatory would think twice before doing so.

Those employers who train their staff in fair selection and who already put
the assessment of skills at the centre of the process, may not favour a move
towards legislation, because they would see it as unnecessary. However, in this
type of organisation, introducing legislation would not cause a huge amount of
additional work.

The downside of introducing legislation would be the initial increase in the
amount of work – inevitable with any new kind of legislation: from re-visiting
policies and procedures to re-writing employment contracts, as well as the
training required for implementation. Legal advice would mean additional costs.

However, these costs would be short-term. In the longer term, employers and
society would see a big return to employers and society – in terms of the way
older employees would be treated, retention of talent in the workforce for
longer and using the energy and wisdom of a category of resource which is too
often pensioned-off early, or not retrained into different areas of the

The next challenge for employers would be to make the working environment a
place where people would prefer to stay than to retire from.

The Cabinet Office

Some employers would prefer the clarity of legislation rather than feeling
they did not know where they stood with a voluntary code of practice and
extensive guidance…age discrimination legislation would have a positive
effect on British culture and would build on a growing sense of public interest
and concern about the issue. The scale of the impact on employers’ behaviour is
hard to measure and would depend on the model of legislation adopted. But the
absence of legislation on age when it exists for gender, race and disability
sends a powerful message that age discrimination is taken less seriously.

Kay Allen
Head of diversity, B&Q

Legislation would not enhance our policy on age or make us see the business
case any differently. Would legislation strengthen the business case for
employing older workers or just burden employers? I was in favour of a code of
practice to help spread the message on age. If forced to choose a side I would
rather push for changes in retirement and pensions and other issues which would
enable employers to develop flexible employment policies. I would advocate
education rather than litigation. Good employers will reap the benefits very
quickly if they understand the business case.

Kay Jarratt
Development director, Employers’ Forum on Age

A majority of our members say they would like to put their own houses in
order.  There is also quite a lot of
enthusiasm for legislation, but I doubt those people are the chief executives
but those with an equal opportunities remit who need more wang to their
wellies.  Our members would claim they
are working towards age diversity practices and that it’s the business
arguments that win.  But we do need the
Government to deploy more resources in getting the message out to decision
makers.  We welcome the new programme
which will do much more.

Marie Gill 
Head of colleague relations, Asda Stores

We need legislation like a hole in the head. Yes, it would make ageism
illegal but would it really make a difference? I doubt it. The problem as with
other forms of diversity is generally with smaller organsiations. But there are
a lot of things that government and employers could do to change attitudes.
Some of that is about visibility, about giving older people a higher profile in
literature and marketing campaigns and about celebrating age. The code of
practice is helpful but we have to make sure more employers are using it as
fully as they should be.

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