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When We're 64

15 July 2006

Is the FM industry ready to handle the new legislation on age discrimination that comes into force on 1st October? Beverley Thompson highlights the challenges, explains the underlying reasons for the legislation and examines the benefits of having an age diverse workforce

IN RECENT RESEARCH BY THE DEPARTMENT for Work and Pensions, less than half of the 2,000 businesses surveyed ¡°monitored¡± their workforce, recruitment and pay in respect of age and only five percent had taken action as a result of monitoring. This is likely to mean that many companies are ill prepared.

The Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006 will be the final part of equality legislation to be implemented in the UK. They will sit alongside existing legislation on race, sex, sexual orientation, disability, religion or belief. The Regulations outlaw age discrimination in employment and vocational training and apply to all employees (whether on permanent or fixed-term contracts), to job applicants, to all levels of employee, secondees, self-employed and contract workers.

All employers will be bound by the regulations and may be held liable for any discriminatory acts by their employees; small firms will not be exempt. The Regulations will provide protection against direct and indirect discrimination, harassment and victimisation on the grounds of age for all individuals, not just older workers. Retirement ages below 65 will be banned (except when objectively justified) and employers will have an imposed duty to consider requests to work beyond retirement and to inform employees at least six months in advance of their intended retirement date to allow for retirement planning.

Any claims will be brought at an employment tribunal and compensation will be uncapped.

Such regulations are set to affect workplace culture and all aspects of working practice - recruitment, selection, retention, development, performance management and pay.

Whilst removing age discrimination is just seen by many as the right thing to do, there are very sound business reasons to take age legislation seriously. The UK has an ageing population. Life expectancy has increased over the last 20 years, people are having fewer children and the average age of the workforce is rising. These changes are causing the labour pool to contract and age; current estimates put 40 per cent of the workforce in the 45 years and over category by 2010. Generally, employers will find it more and more difficult to recruit young employees, particularly skilled ones. To avoid skill shortages and the subsequent negative impact on business performance, organisations will need to attract and retain older workers for longer and keep their skills up to date. The FM industry already recognises that it currently fails to attract as many younger workers as it needs and has a shortage of skilled employees. Embracing the principles behind age legislation could do much to improve this situation in the industry.

Whilst a shortage of younger workers is an issue the good news is that increased life expectancy and shortfalls in pension provisions will mean that more and more people will want to, and need to, work longer.

At the very least, taking a best practice approach to age discrimination will protect individuals and employers against age based employment claims. This will help avoid the time and financial costs of tribunals which, given the uncapped nature of compensation, could be high. At its best, it will help facilities management companies to create the kind of mixed-age workforce that is already providing business benefits in other industries. Done well, it will do much to promote FM companies as responsible, ethical and intelligent employers and will attract people into the facilities management industry to work.

Age legislation aims to force employers to focus on the talent, ability, competence and potential of individuals not their age. It has the potential to improve recruitment and job selection practices, it will encourage organisations to take action to attract all ages of employee which will create greater access to a wider talent pool, it will stop organisations having to lose good workers at retirement age, recruitment costs will reduce and return on investment in training and development will increase. There is clear evidence of reduction in turnover and absenteeism and improvement in motivation and commitment where organisations employ people of all ages. If implemented as part of a wider programme to develop a truly diverse workforce all the potential benefits are increased.

The FM industry is not alone in its current approach to age. Bias and stereotyping based on age exists; assumptions about an individual's competency and their attitude to work are often made based upon their years of experience. Ageist stereotypes have become established in workplace culture and the assumptions associated with such stereotypes are pervasive through business practice. All companies will need to check and possibly revise policies and procedures to 'age-proof' them but the real challenge will be how to address the deep seated stereotypes, assumptions and preconceptions about age that affect the way people are treated in the workplace. Leaders and managers may find themselves needing to change much of their attitude to age. They will need to develop the skills and mind set to be able to see through the age of the employee to the talent, ability and potential they possess. This legislation will seriously challenge currently accepted ways of thinking about people in the workforce.

Be in no doubt about two things:
... Age does currently affect decisions that are made about people. In one recruitment survey 58 per cent of employers agreed age was a factor when considering candidates; in another 71 per cent of respondents had experienced age discrimination when looking for work
...Poor practice will get found out. When introduced in the United States there was a 40 per cent increase in the number of Employment Tribunal claims, age discrimination cases increasing at a higher rate than all other types of claim. In Ireland, where legislation is already in force, age is the basis for 19 percent of employment cases.

Policy and procedures for recruitment, selection, promotion, training, redundancy, performance management and pay are particular areas where age discrimination may occur. The particular danger is for unconscious, indirect discrimination to occur ¨C job adverts asking for young, dynamic professionals' requesting Recruitment Consultants to search for 'mature' candidates; screening candidate CV's on years of experience; not putting older workers forward for training courses; selecting individuals near to retirement age for redundancy ¨C all of these are potentially unlawful as they may indirectly discriminate against younger or older workers.

Companies will need to ensure that all employees understand that discrimination, harassment and victimisation based upon age will not be acceptable and individuals in leadership positions will have a responsibility to ensure that discrimination does not occur. Managers and supervisors will require excellent performance management skills and will need to be thorough and objective in order to manage an age-diverse workforce effectively. Decisions about people will need to be clearly performance based to avoid interpretation as age related; any actions, sanctions or rewards will need to be very closely associated with performance levels to avoid scrutiny and claim.

Common preconceptions and assumptions about age all have some grains of truth that cannot be totally ignored, however, there are no direct correlations between chronological age and any of the following - intelligence, drive, positive attitude, ability to learn, level of sickness, ambition or performance levels.

There are numerous myths and misunderstandings relating to age and its impact upon job performance - older workers are a greater health risk; they take more time off sick; they have less 'ittle grey cells' and are less productive. None of these is true. There is no reduction in productivity with age for most job functions apart from when older workers do not receive the same level of training as younger workers.

Other age misconceptions also occur in relation to training and development. Viewing the training of older workers as a waste of investment is not uncommon but it is worth bearing in mind that an employee over the age of 50 is likely to stay with their employer until their retirement providing at least 15 years of highly productive work if trained appropriately.

To be fully ready for the legislation, people within the FM sector need to be made aware of the extent of the legislation and how it affects them. They will need to be trained in the skills required to fairly recruit, promote, retain and develop people equally without age bias and consistently encouraged to review their thought processes and practices to age neutralise them. Becoming age neutral will help FM to continue
its quest to become an industry of choice for workers and help organisations to harness the competitive edge that an age diverse organisation can achieve.

Will we still be needed when we are sixty-four? The answer most definitely is YES!

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¡ñ Beverley Thompson is an HR & People Development Consultant and Co-Director of Humanics Limited

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