Weekly legal dilemma: Ageism

I’m a human resources director and, to my horror, our HR manager reportedly said about Sir Menzies Campbell’s recent resignation that “he was too old to run the party, let alone the country”. I am obviously concerned about her comments and attitude in light of the new Employment Equality (Age) Regulations. What should I do?

As a first step, you should meet with your HR manager to investigate what was said and to whom. If you then conclude that she did make the alleged comments, you should take action to reassure your staff of your company’s commitment to being an equal opportunities employer, and take steps to improve the HR manager’s behaviour.

It’s important to deal quickly with the effect the comments may have had on those who heard them, and to dispel any belief among the workforce that this kind of behaviour will be tolerated.

To this end, the HR manager should apologise personally to each employee who heard her make the comments. In addition, you should issue a communication to all staff telling them about the Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006, and the grievance procedure that those suffering from discrimination and/or harassment should follow.

Your communication should stress that acts of unlawful age discrimination and/or harassment will be dealt with under the disciplinary procedure.

In dealing with the HR manager, training should be given to raise her awareness and understanding of age discrimination issues in the workplace. In general, conduct will amount to harassment if, in all the circumstances, including the complainant’s perception, it is reasonable to conclude that the conduct caused distress or offence. As with any other employee, your HR manager needs to understand that while she may have intended no offence, her comments could expose the company and her personally to employment tribunal proceedings, and liability to pay compensation.

Should a grievance be raised, you should follow the company’s grievance procedure and, if necessary, deal with the HR manager under the disciplinary procedure.

Jacqui Dunne, employment partner, Simpson Millar

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