Age laws threaten cultural earthquake

2005

A year from now British businesses will be grappling with the arrival on the employment landscape of wide-ranging new age discrimination laws, and the vast majority are woefully ill-prepared.

With new sex discrimination laws being introduced at the weekend, employers already have a lot on their plate when it comes to making sure they do not fall foul of changing employee rights.

But the anti-age discrimination laws that are set to come into force on 1 October next year are poised to cause a biggest cultural and workplace shift since the sex discrimination laws of the 1970s, commentators have predicted.

Yet the majority of businesses remain "in blissful ignorance" about the new laws and their potential ramifications, warns Sam Mercer, director of the Employers Forum on Age.

"They have still not even featured on some organisations' radar. It is still a minority of employers that are working really hard on it and who have sat down and thoroughly reviewed their policies," she adds. "Yet this is the biggest legislation for a generation."

While it is unlikely the sky will fall in on employers come 1 October next year, there is a strong likelihood there will be a sharp rise in cases citing age discrimination, argues Caroline Carter, partner with employment law firm Ashurst.

I suspect that every single application to an employment tribunal will start to have age discrimination as a part of it

"I suspect that every single application to an employment tribunal will start to have age discrimination as a part of it," she warns.

One of the biggest ramifications of the new laws is that, unlike in the U.S (where age discrimination laws have been around for some 40 years) the UK laws will not be just about protecting workers aged over 40.

In the UK the legislation will cover workers of all ages, meaning employers will need to be on the look-out for discrimination against younger as much as older employees.

"My gut instinct is that a lot of the early cases will be from younger people who have not got promoted," predicts Carter.

Another big concern for employers is that if someone in their late-50s, say, can prove age discrimination once they have been dismissed, they will also probably be able to argue that it is going to be hard for them to land a new job, so any damages for loss of earnings could be substantial.

Worryingly, this close to the new laws coming in there is still little sign of the message getting through on something even as basic as the wording of job advertisements, argues Deedee Doke, editor of Recruiter magazine.

"It is a deer in the headlights sort of thing. Recruiters do what employers tell them to do, but they are going to have to educate employers," she explains.

A year may seem time enough to sort things out but, argues Ashurst's Carter, employers need to taking steps right now.

Even though the laws are not in force, a company's conduct now could affect the decision of any future tribunal proceedings because, under the new laws, the culture of the workplace will be assessed, she explains.

One of the most basic things therefore employers should be doing is auditing their workforce age profile and the policies and practices they already have in place.

The key is to step back and say, 'can we objectively justify this, what would be our justification if we were challenged', she suggests.

Warning bells should sound around things such as having a retirement age that is under 65 and failing to record reasons for redundancy, dismissal or promotion in writing.

It is also a good idea to be reviewing benefits, redundancy schemes, career development and training requirements, especially service-related benefits, she adds.

When it comes to recruitment, it can be a good idea, beyond the wording of job advertisements, to look at where you are advertising.

Is the publication or outlet you are using only read by a certain age group, and so indirectly discriminatory, for example?

Perhaps the most difficult thing that will have to change is the entrenched perception, still apparent in many workplaces, that older workers – who as time goes on, remember, are going to become a much larger proportion of the workforce – are simply coasting to retirement.

"There is still a sense that when people get to a certain age that they are no longer on the pace, but that is no longer going to be acceptable," says Carter.

"It is better to know, now, what pitfalls lie ahead of you. You simply cannot leave it to next year," she stresses.