Employers face many months of hard work drawing up policies that will put an end to age discrimination at work - and protect them from possible prosecution - according to research by IRS Employment Review.
Approximately four out of ten employers have no formal or informal policy on age diversity or age discrimination.
But regulations due to be published in draft form by early 2004 will spell out how the government intends to implement the relevant aspects of the EU Employment Directive by October 2006 making it unlawful for employers to discriminate on grounds of age.
The survey of 83 HR departments across the private and public sectors found that only one third of employers operate a formal written policy on age discrimination and/or age diversity within their organisations.
The remainder – 55 of the organisations surveyed – have no formal policy, although many report that an informal policy exists. Overall, just over a quarter of respondents report that they have an informal policy.
Only four organisations – a mere five per cent - report that they set both minimum and maximum ages for recruits. Just six per cent of respondents set a maximum age limit only.
The majority (six out of ten of those answering the question) of employers claim that they do not formally set either minimum or maximum ages for new recruits. Just over a quarter set a minimum age only.
One in five organisations reported that they have no mandatory retirement age.
The report's author, Janet Egan, said that many employers will have to change stereotypical or hostile attitudes to older workers just as they had to change attitudes to race and sex, when discrimination laws tackled these areas more than 25 years ago.
"The post-war baby-boom generation is now heading rapidly for retirement age - so it is in the interests of employers to have policies that encourage older workers to stay with them if they want enough workers to get the job done. But now the law is catching up with them as well.
"Almost every organisation in the IRS study claimed that it did not discriminate against older workers in recruitment, promotion, training or redundancy selection," she continued. "But, in practice, it is widely acknowledged that older applicants frequently fall at the first hurdle – obtaining a job interview – if they admit (or give enough clues, such as dates of attending schools or college) to their age on the application form.
"As yet, employers appear to have done very little development work on age diversity policy and practice. As the deadline approaches and the country’s workforce ages, employers will have to address this area of discrimination. From now on, age will matter to employers."