Age discrimination is in the news again as high profile claimants bring cases in the employment tribunal. Employers who discriminate on the basis of age face awards of unlimited compensation.
Age discrimination in the employment field has been unlawful since 2006; currently through protections set out in the Equality Act 2010. While age may be considered by some to be "just a number" - after all everyone will eventually get older, age continues to be a sensitive issue in the employment context.
Age appears to be more of an issue in particular sectors such as the media. The television and radio broadcaster, Nicholas Parsons, recently admitted that he had been "covering up" his real age for years, fearing that the truth would harm his employment prospects. The racing pundit John McCririck is currently bringing an age discrimination claim against Channel 4 claiming he was sacked because of his age. Former Country File presenter Miriam O'Reilly won an age discrimination case against the BBC in 2011.
The recruitment process holds a number of potential pitfalls for unwary employers. So how can employers reduce the risk of discrimination complaints from disgruntled job applicants?
- Job advertisements should avoid requirements which would automatically rule older or younger workers out of a role - for example, requiring applicants to hold a specific form of academic qualification, or asking for a set number of years' work experience. In circumstances where an age-specific requirement is unavoidable due to the nature of the role, employers must be ready to justify their reasons in response to any challenges. In other cases, it would be advisable for potentially discriminatory requirements to be replaced with more general competencies, skills or attributes.
- Care should be taken to avoid the use of potentially loaded language in job advertisements. For example, terms such as 'mature', 'experienced', 'fresh', 'dynamic' or 'energetic' could all give rise to an inference of discrimination against older or younger candidates. Job titles should also be considered carefully, with titles such as "Office Junior" being dropped in favour of more inclusive ones, such as "Office Assistant".
- Shortlisting decisions should only be made on the basis of objective criteria, to avoid claims from applicants that personal characteristics such as age have been taken into account. For the same reason, it would be preferable not to ask for candidates' dates of birth on any application forms.
- Questions asked during interviews should be carefully worded, with the focus being the role itself and not the personal characteristics of the candidate. For example, questions such as "How would you feel about managing a young team?" would not be advisable; but could be replaced with "Tell me about the leadership qualities you feel you could bring to the team". Scripts or interview templates can be a useful way to ensure that interviewers are taking a consistent approach between candidates.
- Terms such as "old hand" or "wet behind the ears" which may suggest a stereotypical attitude should never be used!
- During the selection stage, all deliberations should focus on the objective performance of the candidate against the requirements of the role. A scoring system or matrix can be a useful tool for ensuring that selection decisions are tightly controlled. Decisions should be tested to ensure that stereotypical assumptions regarding the ability or motivation of candidates have not impacted on the decision making process.
- Notes should be taken to support any selection decisions and retained for a reasonable period in case of any subsequent challenges.
- Training on equality and discrimination awareness should be provided to employees who have responsibility for recruitment, with refresher sessions as needed. Records should be kept of the training provided.
- It is also advisable to have written policies or guidance notes in place covering the recruitment process, for ongoing reference by employees and in order to supplement any formal training.