New initiatives to counter ageism at work

A government media campaign against age discrimination at work was launched in the UK in February 2000, designed to back up a code of practice on age diversity in employment issued in mid-1999. This was followed by a further initiative by the Employers' Forum on Age designed to commit leading UK employers to an active age diversity strategy.

In February 2000, the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) launched a national media campaign to highlight the benefits of an "age diverse workforce" and to promote the code of practice on age diversity in employment issued by the government in June 1999 (UK9906110N). The campaign includes newspaper advertisements with the slogan "Age prejudice - you're old enough to know better", which aim to show that age discrimination at work is a waste of talent. The DfEE says that over 40,000 copies of the code of practice on age diversity in employment have been distributed. A DfEE conference on age diversity and the opening of a website dedicated to the issue are to take place later in 2000.

Launching the government's campaign, Margaret Hodge, minister for employment and equal opportunities, urged employers to change how they think about older people in order to prepare for demographic changes over the next decade which would see a significant rise in the average age of the UK workforce. She cited the example of a number of "leading-edge employers", including the Tesco, B&Q and ASDA retailers, which were "reaping the rewards from making good use of skilled and experienced [older] workers". Such companies were "enjoying business benefits from employing a diverse workforce which reflects and is sensitive to their diverse customer base".

Ms Hodge was joined at the launch by Howard Davies, formerly director-general of the Confederation of British Industry and now chair of the Financial Services Authority, who also chairs the Employers' Forum on Age (EFA). The EFA is an employer-led organisation, with links to the charity and campaign group Age Concern, which aims to promote the business benefits of a mixed-age workforce and combat "ageism" at work. A number of the UK's leading companies are members, including British Airways, BT, Littlewoods, the Nationwide Building Society, Sainsbury's and WH Smith. Mr Davies welcomed the government's campaign as "a positive step forward in tackling what is a very real and pressing issue in Britain today." He said: "It is important that we recognise the benefits of age diversity, both to business and the nation's economy. It is too often assumed that older workers have high rates of absenteeism, poor technical skills, cost more and think more rigidly, while it is assumed that younger workers are poor attendees, irresponsible and inexperienced. Research shows these stereotypes to be completely fictional."

In a related development, on 6 March the EFA published a strategy statement entitled Commitment to age diversity which the organisation says "provides direction for development above and beyond the government's code of practice". It urges member companies to adopt an active age diversity strategy based on six key elements:

  • demonstrating commitment from top management to building age awareness into all aspects of the business;
  • demonstrating commitment to the code of practice;
  • developing existing policies and working practices to achieve a better balanced workforce;
  • linking age to other diversity issues where appropriate;
  • increasing awareness of ageism with "stakeholders" such as employees, customers, suppliers and the wider community; and
  • creating measurable performance indicators and a reporting process.

These initiatives follow research findings published by the EFA in September 1999 indicating that, three months after its introduction, the government's code of practice had made little or no impact in UK workplaces. The research found that :

  • three in 10 employers had never heard of the code;
  • fewer than one in 10 intended to make any changes in the way they recruit and train; and
  • 68% said a code would make no difference to the way they run their business.

According to the EFA, these findings "[came] as a bitter blow to those who hoped the government code would be a viable alternative to legislation on age discrimination - estimated to cost the UK economy GBP 26 billion per year ... The code needs commitment and investment to succeed." The EFA believes that a voluntary code can be effective in changing employers' attitudes. "The only alternative is legislation which many employers will resist - but there may be little option if a voluntary code is seen to fail."

Trade unions, other campaigning groups and some employment lawyers continue to call for statutory intervention, arguing that reliance on a voluntary code of practice and governmental exhortation is unlikely to have a significant impact in countering ageism in the workplace.

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