Ageism in the Workplace – A Struggle for Recognition?

October 9, 2012 § 1 Comment

Historically ‘age’ has struggled for recognition as an equality issue. The emergence of other discrimination legislation emphasised this point. Discrimination on grounds of sex and race has been unlawful in the United Kindgom since 1975 and 1976 respectively. Discrimination on grounds of disability has been unlawful since 1995 and more recently discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and religion and belief has been unlawful since 2003.

It took the emergence of the Equality Directive 2000/78/EC which gave age its rightful place alongside the other protected grounds. This Directive required Member States to enact specific legislation to combat age discrimination, which the United Kingdom did in the form of the Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006. Presently we have the Equality Act 2010, representing years of debate on how to improve equality law, and this consolidated and replaces a number of previous discrimination legislation including the Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006.

Differences of treatment between individuals or groups on the grounds of age are often based on generalised assumptions or stereotypes. Ageism allows us to think of others purely in terms of their chronological age or perceived age regardless of how experienced they are or how able they are to perform a task. It is a widespread stereotype that older persons are often assumed to lack flexibility, the ability to absorb new ideas are less motivated, are risk averse and may resist training/are resistant to change. Another stereotype frequently encountered is that the physical and mental abilities decrease with age. The stereotypes that exist are often inaccurate and do not reflect the true diversity of individuals. Age does not automatically mean a diminution of skills or a diminution in cognitive capacity or physical strength and endurance. The concern was that by allowing employers to justify direct age discrimination the defence may give rise to misuse and/or facilitate stereotypical assumption.

A review of the reported case law and observation of age discrimination claims at the local Employment Tribunal reveals the consensus that despite the existence of legislation to combat unlawful age discrimination ageism will inevitably occur at the recruitment stage for older workers and that is a fact of life. However an Employment Tribunal is willing to compensate individuals for the risk of continued discrimination.

In the case of  Killa v Electronic Motions Systems Ltd the Claimant had been employed as an electronic engineer for 8 years and was selected for redundancy, with no evidence of any objective criteria being applied. The Employment Tribunal found that the dismissal amounted to age discrimination. In the remedy judgment it was held that ‘it is not, unfortunately, the case that someone aged 59, 60 or over, competes on a level playing with younger people. The reality is that age discrimination exists and is likely to be highly influential in limiting his opportunities.”’ The Employment Tribunal goes onto confirm that ‘not only his age, but also his recent dismissal, in a non voluntary redundancy, is against him. He has already found that that was a factor making obtaining work more difficult’ andgoes as far as to conclude that Mr Killa has realistically ‘no chance of getting work in his own field at his age, and at the level he previously enjoyed. He has no chance of getting equivalent earnings in another field in the years he has left.’

We do not know what evidence the Employment Tribunal had in order to reach these findings, except the unsuccessful efforts of Mr Killa to find alternative work. Therefore we do not know whether the Employment Tribunal is acting on its own view about recruitment or whether there was clear evidence that Mr Killa was unsuccessful in securing alternative employment because of his age.

More recently in an age discrimination/unfair dismissal case that I observed at a local Employment Tribunal there was a common thread throughout the evidence as to how difficult it would be for a 58 year old to find alternative employment. The Claimant himself felt: ‘At 58 I will never get another job… Simple as that.’ One witness for the Respondent, an agent of significant experience in the relevant field of the Claimant’s work, initially commented that the Claimant ‘…would be top of the pile with his experience’ and stated that he would consider the Claimant for a role.  However later in the questioning the witness acknowledged that looking purely at the ages without knowing the candidates by recommendation then he would be unlikely to pick the 58 year old. Indeed in her closing submission Claimant’s Counsel hypothetically asked the Employment Tribunal ‘is an employer really going to give the job to a 58 year old man?’

There was no acknowledgement or indication by any of the witnesses that the culture of ageism may have changed as a result of age being a protected characteristic within the Equality Act 2010. However the Employment Tribunals are recognising this struggle to combat age discrimination and are sending a clear message that Claimants will be compensated accordingly.

– Lyndsey Martin

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