It was only a matter of time . . . .
Only weeks after the introduction of new age discrimination laws in the UK, an insurance company from Dorset has banned employees sending each other round-robin birthday cards in case good-humoured comments about the recipient's age leave the firm open to claims of discrimination.
Alan & Thomas, apparently introduced the ban after lawyers advised them that comments about bus passes, old codgers and Viagra, even if intended as a joke, could cost them thousands of pounds in damages.
"The new rules outlawing age discrimination are a potential minefield for both employers and employees," the firm's managing director said. "This is a fairly emotive subject within the workplace because it could open up a can of worms for both employees and employers."
According to the Times newspaper, lawyers are split on whether such comments are in fact discriminatory – although they are presumably salivating over the prospect of being the first to take such a claim to a tribunal.
Neil Gouldson, an expert in employment law at the legal firm Rowe Cohen, in Manchester, said that employers needed to take a hard line against ageism. "Gags in birthday cards about being 'over the hill' and 'coffin dodgers' and Dad's Army jokes and so on will need to be curbed. Employers must tackle prejudices within the workplace if they are to avoid substantial claims," he said.
Arpita Dutt, from the solicitors Russell Jones & Walker in London, said that one comment in a card was not enough to bring a claim of age discrimination. "It would be very rare for an employee to bring a claim on the basis they have been offended by a comment in a birthday card.
"If an employee does get offended then the matter can probably be resolved quite quickly because it would be disproportionate for them to bring a claim on that alone."
But in a welcome moment of sanity, employment law specialist Gill King, of King Associates said: "People who write some of these laws are do- gooders who don't really understand the true implications of them in the workplace.