Written by Diversity Expert Sheena Corry
Encouraging progress is being made on diversity and inclusion issues by businesses across the UK. Movements like Black Lives Matter (BLM) and #MeToo have thrust ethnicity and gender issues under the spotlight in recent years and demanded that businesses closely consider the policies and protections they have in place to protect underrepresented groups.
While discussions around gender and ethnicity have generated widespread interest, there is a risk that other forms of discrimination are to an extent being placed on the back burner. It’s important that discrimination in all forms is addressed and recognised as a critical business issue. This includes age-related discrimination which, according to recent press reports, has become an increasingly significant issue over the course of the pandemic. A recent report from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) highlights how the proportion of the working age population aged between 50 and the state pension age will grow from an already significant 26% in 2012 to 34% by 2050, which represents a growth of some 5.5 million people. As a result, the economic fortunes of the UK will increasingly be dependent upon an older workforce. Age-related discrimination is not, therefore, something we can afford to ignore.
However, data this year from the Ministry of Justice (May 2021) showed that the number of age-related discrimination claims brought before employment tribunals has increased in England and Wales since the lockdown began. Claims increased by a massive 30% over the previous year, and the increase came against a “backdrop of smaller increases in other jurisdictional claims, with the total number of complaints in employment tribunals over the past year only increasing by 7%”.
Such an increase – one that is disproportionately large compared to the increase in other tribunal cases – is concerning. It suggests that, for whatever reason, a number of businesses have been ignoring their obligations to staff on age-related issues because of changes brought about by the pandemic. It’s a shame too, because the benefits that a multi-generational workforce can bring to a business are legion – older employees are able to bring invaluable experience and insights into a company and this promotes diversity of thought.
Additionally, age stereotypes often go overboard in assuming every person the same age was affected by generational milestones in the same way. This is all too often not the case, and making such assumptions can push down valuable members of a team before they even get going, leaving them feeling judged, excluded and unmotivated.
The Guardian published an article on that aforementioned MoJ data, and in the piece Patrick Thompson, a senior programme manager at the Centre for Ageing Better said that “as the labour market adapts to the unwinding of furlough, reopening and some businesses and closing of others, many older workers are being caught in the middle”. This statement tallies with another article published by the Financial Times in March 2021, which reported that many employers were using the Covid-19 pandemic as a cover for age-related discrimination.
Age-related discrimination in the workplace is a significant issue that will only continue to pick up steam as the pressure increases for staff to return to the office. As time goes on, older workers will only be caught in the middle more and more.
Advice for employers
Employers must remember that age-related discrimination is against the law.
The Equality Act 2010 says that an employee must not be discriminated against because they are of a certain age or in a certain age group, nor should they because someone thinks they are (or are not) a specific age or age group (which is known as ‘discrimination by perception’).
Employers must respect their legal obligations and be proactive in building an inclusive culture where colleagues are respected, valued and are able to bring their individual voices and experience to the table. There are many ways to do this, including encouraging staff to challenge stereotypes in the office (e.g. calling out the use of phrases like ‘Boomer’ and ‘Snowflake’ when they happen), making sure that different communication styles are sought and accommodated; and encouraging staff to respect each other’s values and perspectives even where individuals may disagree with one another).
Employers must understand that any form of age discrimination is illegal. In light of the concerning statistics outlined by the Ministry of Justice, they must take extra caution to ensure that company policies treat staff of all age groups equally. Any companies caught out on this face severe consequences. According to 2019/20 UK government data, age discrimination claims received the largest average award (£39,000) compared to other discrimination jurisdictions. We need only look in the press for examples of this. This very month (6 September 2021), an Irish nursing home was forced to pay a senior staff nurse who was unfairly dismissed €85,000 in compensation. Such claims often end in a nasty financial sting for the company falling foul, and this becomes significantly worse in cases involving multiple employees.
In many ways too, the financial cost of being caught out on age-related discrimination is the least of a business’s worries. In the eyes of the public, the pandemic has been a time when businesses and individuals should come together to overcome social and economic adversity. The negative PR drawn by companies appearing to exploit or ignore staff for their own gain is therefore often catastrophic
Businesses that recognise the benefits of a multi-generational and diverse workforce are able to harness a cognitive diversity that will help any business to thrive. Evidence repeatedly suggests that diverse workforces stimulate greater levels of innovation, engagement and creativity, and this drives better business performance. Different generations can lend different points of view, which is beneficial when making strategic business decisions. Ultimately, doing business in the right way and supporting your people and the communities in which you operate will promote financial resilience and safeguard your balance sheet.
In short, employers must learn from the above accounts (of which there are many more to come) and do right by their staff. It is not only important for the wellbeing of their own employees, but also the wellbeing and survival of their business.
Sheena Corry, Head of Diversity and Inclusion Solution Design at diversity and inclusion consultancy Brook Graham, at Pinsent Masons Vario.