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Let's take age discrimination more seriously

Despite there being laws to stop it, age discrimination doesn't seem to be taken as seriously as other forms of discrimination.

David Webb, part of the policy team at workplace advisers Acas, explains why it is vital the law against age discrimination gains a much higher profile.

It’s very encouraging to see efforts mounting to rid the workplace of ageism.

For example, the ongoing work of charities such as the Centre for Ageing Better and Business in the Community, the Government’s Department of Work and Pensions and the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee is crucial.

This makes it exactly the right time for Acas to launch new guidance to help employers, recruitment agencies, trade unions and employees prevent unfair treatment at work because of age – and that includes because someone is younger, older or somewhere in the middle.

I’ve spent many months researching and working with a wide range of stakeholders, from employers to trade unions and from campaigning charities to academics, to draft the new advice. But a conclusion I’ve come to is that unfair treatment because of age – in other words, age discrimination – has been a poor relation of the Equality Act 2010.

It’s not that the law isn’t there to stop it, it’s just that age discrimination doesn’t seem to be taken as seriously as say sex, race or disability discrimination.

It may be that age discrimination is a less emotive subject than other parts of the Act. The conversations I have had with campaigners and other stakeholders on age have always been polite and well-informed, but people do not thump the table like they can regarding other parts of life protected by the Act. And the Women and Equalities Committee has confirmed there is complacency about age discrimination, which it says is rife.

The law against age discrimination does need a much higher profile, and also needs to be much better understood. And many more employers need to wake up to the fact that age discrimination, apart from in limited circumstances, is unlawful.

The new Acas guidance is practical, explaining in straightforward language what employers need to do in the workplace including when:

  • hiring,
  • training and promoting staff, and
  • managing job performance.

For example, when looking to fill a vacancy, usually, it is better to set out the type or types of experience needed rather than ask for a number of years’ experience. When planning training, don’t deny an employee training or development because of their age. And when managing job performance, this must be done without preconceptions or bias concerning age.

Although such simple steps by an employer can prevent discrimination, we mustn't shy away from the fact that the law about age discrimination can be complex. For example, different treatment because of age may be allowed in limited circumstances. These exceptions can be complicated to put into practice correctly. An employer needs to be fully informed.

Further, age is looming large for the nation as a whole. The birth rate continues to be low. This is contributing to the shortage of applicants for jobs, which in turn means a lot of unfilled vacancies. And this trend is going to get worse unless there is a change of mind-set about encouraging older people to stay in work, retraining them if they are interested in another role and, of course, hiring them in the first place.

This change in mind-set is essential. For example, it is forecast that by 2025 there will be around 300,000 fewer under 30s in the workplace. Meanwhile, there will be around another one million over 50s either working or wanting to work.

So, there’s no time to lose. Don’t let age catch up on you.

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David Webb
Workplace Policy Manager, Acas