The debate about whether age discrimination is best tackled through the voluntary route or legislation will drag on as the Government hammers out the details on how to translate the European directive outlawing age discrimination into UK law. In reality, however, the debate is already dead in the water.
Legislation on workplace age discrimination is coming whether employers like it or not. In two separate forums last week, employers were given a clear message that if they wanted to avoid the big stick of employment tribunals their best course of action was to get their houses in order now.
Equal opportunities minister Margaret Hodge urged employers at a CIPD meeting to embrace the law, while speakers at the Employers’ Convention in Brighton, run by law firm Eversheds, put the business case for anti-ageist policies to an audience of HR professionals.
Interestingly, Hodge admitted that previous discrimination legislation had been of limited effect because employers had failed to embrace it.
Past experience shows that legislation takes a very long time to change attitudes and practices -if it ever does. There is no reason to believe that fears of legal payouts and bad publicity will act as much of a spur to employers entrenched in practices that discriminate on the basis on age.
Unfortunately for them, though, the impact of the law will be small fry compared to the impact on competitiveness if companies fail to exploit older members of the workforce. The real driver will be skills shortages and demographics.
HR professionals are playing a major part in overhauling work practices in those organisations which are ahead of the game. Others would do well to follow.