The young ones

When Sarah (not her real name)  joined British Airways (BA) last year, she became the company’s youngest qualified pilot. Being a woman and aged 23, she was aware she would have to fight the stereotypes people hold.

“In my workplace there isn’t a problem, but socially I meet people who have this set idea that a pilot must be an older man. Sometimes I lie about what I do just to make my life easier,” she says.

After finishing her initial training at the age of 20, Sarah spent six months looking for work until she was recruited by Ryanair, which trained her up to qualified pilot status prior to her move to BA.

“When you are young, you find yourself in a nasty loop – you have the qualifications but little experience,” she says. “I was lucky enough to get a chance with Ryanair, which is a progressive employer and is not afraid to employ younger people.”

As the age discrimination legislation looms, employers who have up until now been reticent about taking on young people will have to take a leaf out of Ryanair’s book, according to Aine MacRory, leader of the employment team at law firm Cobbetts.

This is because, according to MacRory, the recruitment and promotion of those just starting out on their career path will be biggest problem area for employers when the law comes into force.

Length of experience

It is commonplace, she says, for employers to ask for a certain length of experience in a job ad or as a condition of a promotion. But unless they can justify this, from 1 October, these actions will be regarded as discriminatory.

“Young people are less likely to fulfil a requirement for length of experience, so any experience factors are likely to be directly discriminatory and will have to be objectively justified,” says MacRory.

At law firm Halliwells, professional support lawyer Chris Davies also sees this as a danger area for organisations and says that any presumption that someone has more expertise just because they have been doing a job for a longer period of time is unfair.

“Someone working in a busy, progressive company may gain more experience in one year than someone who has spent five years in a quiet, back-street firm,” he says.

Davies says that rather than demanding individuals have a certain length of experience, employers should list the skills and competencies that accurately describe what the position entails.

The fact that many employers don’t already do this reflects a “laziness on their part,” according to Sally Humpage, an employment policy manager at retailer Marks and Spencer (M&S). When recruiting, it is easier to ask for five or 10 years’ experience as a catch-all requirement, than to carefully analyse the myriad of skills and competencies that make up the role.

Campaign to change mindsets

Equally difficult, Humpage admits, is the task of changing people’s mindsets in this area. For this reason, she is helping to spearhead a “massive communications campaign” throughout the company this summer aimed at raising awareness of age discrimination issues.

Not that the company has not already made progressive steps in this area. M&S was recently commended by Age Positive, a working group of the Department for Work and Pensions, for its commitment to age diversity in the workplace.

One move that has encouraged younger staff to join M&S is a policy of allowing stores to recruit 15-year-olds for weekend work. Humpage says she hopes some of these young workers will consider staying with the company once they begin thinking about their career options.

“We have had this policy in place for two years now – not so much because of the legislation, but because younger people are an important group that we can tap into to widen our recruitment pool,” Humpage says.

Davies welcomes such initiatives and suggests employers look at all aspects of recruitment and promotion.

Changing application forms

One area that may come under scrutiny is how job application forms are set out. Traditionally, application forms have asked for previous work experience to be set out in chronological order, which “is basically asking for the applicant’s age,” says Davies.

He proposes employers consider changing the layout of application forms, so that applicants are instead asked to list the skills and proficiencies they possess without any focus on their age. “This is a good discipline for employers and helps companies change their focus,” he says.

Another potential problem area for employers, according to Davies, concerns the thorny issue of pay. Many employers increase workers’ salaries after each year they stay with the organisation, but if this cannot be justified they may come unstuck when the age discrimination legislation comes into force.

“It will be very difficult to justify two people doing the same job, but one worker getting better pay simply because they are older,” says Davies, who feels this issue will force employers to be more transparent about how they work out employee pay.

At another retailer, the Co-operative Group, head of diversity, Amanda Jones, says the firm has “age-proofed” the way it assesses pay by focusing on the performance and contribution of staff, rather than how old they are.

The company uses a performance management pro-cess, which takes into consideration both content and behaviour – that is not only how well someone has performed, but how they went about doing it. “We have taken age out of how we view our people,” says Jones.

But getting the policies right is just the start, says Sam Mercer, director of the Employers Forum on Age (EFA), an employers’ body set up to promote the advantages of an age-diverse workforce.

Mercer says that while a lot of employers do not have any policies that are obviously ageist, she feels many make assumptions about young people’s abilities.

EFA’s recent Age at Work survey found that teenage employees are likely to be the most restless in the workplace, perhaps because they are deemed not old enough to be given challenging opportunities.

How to avoid discriminating against younger workers

  • Employers should not require employees to fulfil a requirement for a certain length of experience to qualify for a new job or promotion.
  • They should instead ask for certain competencies and skills that accurately describe the job and aren’t dependent on age.
  • Application forms that ask for skills and achievements rather than a chronological list of previous jobs will help employers move their focus away from a person’s age.
  • Pay should not be calculated based on a person’s age, but on their ability and performance.

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