New age discrimination laws are due to come in this Autumn - forcing companies to take a long hard look at how they deal with ageism.
The forthcoming legislation, due in October, will make age discrimination at work illegal and is being brought in to comply with European Union employment rules.
But what will the changes mean for employers and how should they prepare for the pitfalls? Head-hunter and recruitment expert Doug Mackay, of Collingwood Search and Selection, is warning employers in the food manufacturing industry to take some simple steps to avoid falling foul of the new laws. "Many companies genuinely believe they don't age discriminate, especially if you can look around an office or factory and see a mix of age groups," says Mackay. "But the new legal requirements may expose even the most well-intentioned company to possible legal action."
According to Mackay, three key recruitment areas will be affected by the changes: advertising, application forms and interviewing. The first step, he advises, is to take a long hard look at the design and wording of any recruitment advertising. "Beware of using phrases such as 'young dynamic professional required' or using age restrictions like 'no older than 40 and no younger than 25'," he says.
Also, a lot of companies still use experience linked to time such as 'five years experience in the food sector necessary' - but this will leave you on shaky ground, warns Mackay.
When it comes to application forms, employers are advised not to include date of birth, as although asking for someone's age may seem straightforward, the implications will no longer be clear cut.
Great care will need to be taken during the interview and selection process, says Mackay, and managers will need to ensure that questions do not have a hidden age implication.
"Beware of comments such as: 'So when are you planning to retire?', 'You may be over qualified' or 'How would you feel about having a younger boss?'" he suggests.
Steve Barnes, associate director of recruitment business FSS thinks this will be a big task for many companies and will even stretch as far as making sure any accompanying pictures on an advert don't imply any age bias, or making sure applications are not done solely via the internet.
In light of the fact that many people do not want to retire at 65, and with a pensions crisis looming, the time has come to focus on the importance of a mixed age workforce, stresses Mackay.
The legislation will also impact on pensions, service-related benefits, promotions, redundancy, staff handbooks, and even those seemingly innocent phrases in the workplace such as : 'She's just waiting for her pension', or 'He's still in short trousers'.
But, Mackay adds: "Companies should not panic about the new legislation as it could be an excellent opportunity to review work practices and banish outmoded views. On the face of it, the legislation will allow companies to objectively choose the right candidate. And getting the right employee is like hitting the jackpot - it can bring wealth to your company and take profits to a higher level."
The new laws won't just affect the recruitment process, warns Sam Mercer, director of the Employers Forum on Age (EFA), but will touch on every single employment policy employers have. She suggests bringing in methods like psychometric testing during recruitment to reduce the risk of discrimination.
"Employers will have to look at how they train and promote staff of all ages, making sure there is no bias. There will also now be a very defined process by which they retire, making it very difficult for employers to retire someone before the age of 65 unless they have good reason and evidence to back it up. Most employers are not confident they can do this," says Mercer.
And under the banner of Duty to Consider, employees will also have to be offered the opportunity to continue working once they reach retirement age. Furthermore, while employees over the age of 65 currently have no protection from unfair dismissal, they will under the new laws.
"It will be an enormous job to audit all employment policies and change them where needed," adds Mercer, whose message to employers is, if you can get rid of age references, then do. "Our tip is, if you substitute age for sex or racism in a policy and it makes you feel uncomfortable, you've probably got a problem."
However, as Mercer sees it, one of the biggest hurdles to overcome is changing people's attitudes to something that is "culturally engrained" - a task she believes will be an enormous challenge for employers when faced with what is currently seen as 'acceptable' ageist banter in the workplace. Added to which, she says, most HR policies have a direct or indirect age element to them, which will need to be changed. Most employers, she adds, are in "blissful ignorance" about the scale of change needed.
Indeed, Barnes suggests there is a lack of awareness among employers, more so with smaller businesses rather than the blue chip companies. "Making sure they avoid the risk of stepping outside the regulations will be a real wake-up call for them," he suggests.
This is not a view shared by Paula Widdowson, commercial director of Improve, the sector skills council for the food and drink manufacturing industry, who believes most companies are already operating the new policies. But what could be an issue with staff now staying in the workforce for maybe 45 years, is ensuring they are continually trained and developed to maintain interest and grow performance.
And in terms of the cultural shift, Widdowson thinks we are already doing it. "I mean, who would have thought that at the age of 60 Helen Mirren would be a sex icon, or Twiggy would be fronting an M&S ad campaign?" But, she adds, it will be a long, slow shift, not one that will happen overnight.
Ultimately, says Mercer, in our litigious culture, employers need to take the laws very seriously as claims will be brought under them. FM