Employers face red tape chaos as they try to comply with age discrimination laws due next year, with even funny birthday cards and workplace banter likely to leave them open to litigation.
With new age discrimination laws due on October 1st 2006, law firm Rowe Cohen highlighted the issue by displaying armfuls of offending age-related birthday cards picked from the shelves of high street retailers.
According to Neil Gouldson, Rowe Cohen's head of employment law, even these small displays of humour will vanish from workplaces as bosses become increasingly fearful of litigation.
"Legislation outlawing age discrimination is only 18 months away. It will mean a massive cultural change in many workplaces.
"No aspect of employment will remain untouched - recruitment, promotion, benefits, redundancy, retirement and dismissals will all be affected," Gouldson said.
"Smart employers are cleansing their workplaces of ageist practices to make sure they don't face hefty compensation bills in the Employment Tribunal.
"The point we are making is that employers will need to take a hard line on ageist banter in the workplace. Gags about being 'over the hill' and so on will need to be curbed.
"Hopefully this has placed the issue of age discrimination firmly in the minds of business owners and they can get their act together before they find themselves in hot water."
Gouldson added that the problem of companies forcing people to retire at a certain age is also complicated by age discrimination laws:
"Age discrimination remains the only type of discrimination covered by the 2000 Equal Treatment Framework Directive which is still lawful in the UK," he said.
Draft age-discrimination regulations were delayed in 2004 because the Government has yet to address the crucial issue of whether or not to introduce a default compulsory retirement age.
"From October 1st 2006, employers could require employees to retire at 65, subject to employees having the right to 'request' to work beyond 65. Employers must seriously consider these requests and can only refuse it on the basis of a sound business reason."
Direct discrimination will be outlawed and covers situations where any employee is treated less favourably based on actual or 'perceived' age. Indirect discrimination where blanket company policies or usual practice disadvantages people of a certain age will also be outlawed.
Gouldson advice to employers is to complete age audits on their workforce, review flexible working patterns and access to training and revise pay schemes to ensure that longevity is not a sole criterion of reward.
They should also rethink the wording used in job adverts to exclude potentially discriminatory content such as 'would suit mature worker' or 'opportunity to work in a young dynamic environment', as well as take a tougher stance on ageist banter in the workplace.
"Employers must tackle prejudices within the workplace if they are to avoid substantial claims," he warned.