Legislation on its own will not solve the problem of age discrimination in Britain's workplaces because most people simply don't take ageism as seriously as they do prejudice based on race and religion.
But age discrimination legislation due to be introduced next year is likely to prove a far bigger headache to employers than sex, race or disability discrimination laws, according to a new study by employment law advisers, Croner.
The research, carried out by the Ludic Group and the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), reveals that ageist stereotypes exist in the workplace and, to achieve a workplace free from ageism, employers need to address grass-roots culture change in time for 1 October 2006 when age discrimination is outlawed.
The study, carried out among employees in their 30s to 50s, found that ageism was considered more socially acceptable than other prejudices, such as race and religion and was not seen as a major factor in workplace diversity.
Although they acknowledged that certain jobs in their company came with an age tag, they accepted this as the 'way it has always been' - even if they didn't agree with this in principle.
Significantly, all the companies involved claimed to be 'age diverse' and said that they were working towards 'best practice' in terms of diversity.
But the penalties for workplace age discrimination will be just as severe as for other forms of discrimination. Croner says the study supports its firm belief that companies need to address inherent stereotypes that exist in their workforce now, before it is too late.
The research, chaired by Professor Patrick Humphreys, head of the Institute of Social Psychology at LSE, observed employees in large companies in the financial services sector and analysed their personal views and experiences on age using a 'real workplace' situation to provide a glimpse into true organisational life.
The effects of next year's legislation are likely to be far reaching because age discrimination can affect anybody of any age, meaning that all employment practices will need to be tested for any inherent ageism.
Croner's Christopher J Mellor said that the study highlighted the enormous scope of this legislation.
"Age is the poor relation in the diversity debate and ageism is worryingly not seen by employees as a workplace crime. But next October, the law will deem age discrimination illegal and our study paints a gloomy picture of how ill-prepared business is to face this challenge.
"When we leave for work each morning we take our prejudices with us and this widespread acceptance of ageism as 'just the way things are' means employers need to be proactive in terms of educating employees about diversity.
Just introducing age-friendly policies alone will not be enough, he warned, and companies will have to take steps to promote the fact that it is no longer the workplace norm for, a 'junior' position to be defaulted to someone 'younger', or 'senior' to someone 'older'.
"Action to promote age diversity taken only by a few companies will not effectively alter the wider culture, and we hope our report will be helpful in establishing this issue onto boardroom agendas across the UK."
Professor Humphreys said that the research underlined the fact that legislation by itself could not solve the problem of age related discrimination.
"Accounts from the participants in these organisations showed that addressing age related stereotypes was clearly an issue and led us to recommend companies take age positive steps and identify practical methods to challenge assumptions and attitudes towards age."