Survey explores age-related policies, practices and preferences

In 2006, the UK government published new research examining whether and to what extent current employment policies and practices may be discriminatory on the grounds of age. It found that a series of practices – in areas such as recruitment, pay, training, retirement and redundancy – could potentially be age discriminatory. Moreover, there is still a lack of awareness among employers about the Employment Equality Regulations coming into force in October 2006.

New research, published in 2006 by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), has explored the extent to which current employment policies and practices comply with equal opportunities regarding age. The report aimed to evaluate the effects of the Employment Equality (Age) Regulations, due to be implemented in October 2006 (UK0603029I). The research, carried out by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) and the British Market Research Bureau (BMRB), is based on a representative survey of 2,087 establishments in Britain with at least five employees, and was conducted between November 2004 and May 2005. The researchers interviewed the most senior person in the workplace with responsibility for human resource (HR) issues.

Main findings

The report provides information on practices relating to equal opportunities, pay and benefits, retirement, appraisal, training, promotion and redundancy, as well as attitudes and awareness. According to its main findings:

  • A total of 72% of establishments had an equal opportunities policy and 56% had a policy that addressed age. Monitoring with respect to age occurred in 49% of establishments but only 5% had taken action as a result, while 19% of establishments provided equal opportunities training that covered age issues.
  • In the area of recruitment, 6% of establishments specified an age range in job advertisements, while 49% had a maximum recruitment age.
  • In terms of pay systems and pay criteria, 5% of establishments had incremental pay scales extending for more than five years within the same scale and 15% had performance-based pay with no formal assessment process (thereby leaving them open to possible discrimination claims).
  • Criteria for receiving training, where it was not automatic for all staff, was affected by age (in 1% of establishments), time before retirement (8%), potential length of service (8%), potential length of service judged by age (1%) and expected ability to learn new tasks (27%). Promotion was directly affected by age in 4% of establishments.
  • In 37% of establishments, employees had to retire at a certain age. In all, 57% had no compulsory retirement age and 6% had a compulsory retirement age below 65 years.
  • 12% of establishments included age in their selection criteria for compulsory redundancy. A total of 28% included the ‘last in, first out’ principle and 40% included length of service in their selection criteria. Selection criteria for voluntary redundancy included age (in 5% of establishments) and length of service (11%). Redundancy payments were also affected by age in 10% of establishments with respect to compulsory redundancy and in 9% of establishments with respect to voluntary redundancy.
  • Although 66% of respondents were aware of the impending legislation, only 26% thought they knew when it would be implemented and just 7% correctly stated the actual date of implementation, 1 October 2006. Among those least aware were small establishments, establishments without a recognised trade union, the private sector and sectors such as manufacturing, construction, hotels and restaurants, transport and storage, and communications.

Conclusions

The authors of the report emphasise that many polices and practices that are correlated with age have an objective justification and are entirely appropriate and lawful; for example, the use of experience and qualifications is often an essential indicator of competence in many jobs. The report seeks to identify policies and practices that are age discriminatory, as well as those that may or may not be discriminatory, depending on specific circumstances (referred to as ‘potentially hazardous polices and practices’). Most policies and practices mentioned above fall within the latter category.

The main conclusion of the report is that those most likely to suffer discrimination in employment are young people and older people. The direct role of age in recruitment and the degree of compulsory retirement are seen as likely to have the greatest impact on the employment and labour market participation of older people. Time-related factors, such as length of service and periods of experience, also render a wide range of policies and practices ‘potentially hazardous’, since the ability to satisfy the criteria increases with age. In terms of their impact on equality of opportunity, their use in redundancy selection criteria and in enhanced redundancy payments is perceived as most likely to affect the labour market participation of older people.

The authors underline that there is still some way to go in terms of raising awareness of the draft regulations, especially among small establishments and in certain sectors. Increasing awareness in establishments that do not have a senior human resource specialist is considered particularly important.

Jonathan Payne, SKOPE, University of Warwick

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