Ageism in the Workplace: How It Affects Older Adults
Everyone deserves to feel welcome and respected at work. If you’re able to competently complete the work that’s assigned to you, that’s all that should matter.
Since 2010, the rules surrounding work-based discrimination in the UK have changed. This includes discrimination in the workplace.
This page is our guide to navigating age discrimination in the UK. We’ll cover what discrimination is, how to spot it at work, and what your options are if you’d like to take action.
What is Age Discrimination?
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development provides the following definition for age discrimination in the workplace:
“Age discrimination occurs when someone is unfairly disadvantaged for reasons relating to their age which cannot be objectively justified”.
If your age isn’t an obstacle to you doing your work properly, and despite this, you’re still facing obstacles related to your age, you might be dealing with age discrimination.
This has been illegal in the United Kingdom since 2006 and was formally incorporated into the Equality Act of 2010. If you can prove you’re being discriminated against on the basis of your age, you should be able to seek legal recourse. We explore your options further down this page.
Unlawful Discrimination Practice and the Equality Act
According to the 2010 Equality Act, there are 4 types of age discrimination that can occur. These are:
- Direct discrimination.
- Indirect discrimination.
Understanding these types of discrimination will make it much easier to both spot and react to them.
Direct Age Discrimination
Direct discrimination occurs when someone treats you worse than others because of your age. Some examples of this include:
- Not being offered a new job because of your age.
- Being refused training because you’re ‘too old’.
- Being excluded from work projects on the basis of your age.
Something to Note – ‘Objective Justification’
Direct discrimination as described above is permissible under UK law if your employer can provide what’s called ‘objective justification’. If there’s a genuine reason that your age may be a barrier, the behaviour might not qualify as age discrimination.
Some examples of this might include:
- No longer being physically able to perform the work effectively.
In the context of the workplace, your employer will have to demonstrate that their discriminatory decisions are a means to achieve a ‘legitimate aim’. If there’s a reasonable way for them to do things without discriminating, their ‘objective justification’ might not hold water.
A workplace policy that applies to everyone but that disproportionately affects people from a certain age group may qualify as indirect discrimination. Some examples of this include:
- Recruitment policies that require ‘at least 5 years of experience’ - which may be problematic for older adults starting work in a new industry.
- ‘Last in, first out’ policies that select people with the fewest years of service for redundancy, indirectly discriminating against younger employees or later life career changers.
As with direct discrimination above, your employer’s behaviour may be permissible under UK law if they can provide ‘objective justification’ for their actions.
If your age has led to bullying or humiliation at work, this could qualify as workplace harassment. Examples of this include:
- Your employer making fun of an older staff member for being ‘too old to get it’.
- A fellow employee making undue comments about your learning speed or movements based on your older age.
There is no legal justification for workplace harassment. However, the following may be obstacles when seeking legal recourse:
- Proving that the harassment occurred
- Proving that your employer didn’t do everything they could to stop the harassment from happening
However, you would still be able to take action against the harasser in question regardless.
If you are involved (either directly or indirectly) in an age discrimination complaint and your boss is treating you differently as a result, this may qualify as victimisation. As with harassment, there’s no legal justification for victimisation in the UK.
When making a complaint, you’ll be asked to provide as much detail as possible about the nature of the victimisation.
Ageism in the Workplace – What the Numbers Say
The extent of age-related discrimination in the UK workplace is upsetting to say the least. The following statistics are just the tip of the iceberg:
- 44% of surveyed employees had experienced some form of ageism at work.
- A recent survey from Stop Ageism.org.
- Age-related discrimination is the second-most common (12%) topic of workplace tribunals in the UK.
- 76% of surveyed employees aged 25-34 had experienced ageism at work.
- A recent CV Library survey.
- At least 1 in 3 older people experience age-related discrimintion in the UK.
Signs of Ageism at Work
Sadly, ageism is far more entrenched in UK work culture than many people realise. This can go far beyond the overt harassment that many people imagine. We explore some examples below.
Ageism in recruitment is far from over in the United Kingdom. With older applicants, companies may assume that they would be unable to adapt to new training or policies, possess insufficient motivation for the role, or be physically incapable of 'keeping up'.
Please note that age discrimination is illegal during the recruitment process. If you think your potential employee is discriminating against you on the basis of your age, legal action may be possible.
Is your employer denying access or ‘strongly recommending against’ a training opportunity as a result of your age? This is an example of ageism in full force and isn’t something you should not have to tolerate.
Promotions should be offered – arguably among other factors – on the basis of merit. If your older age is stopping you from getting a promotion at work, this is an example of workplace discrimination.
As mentioned above, a once-common redundancy policy, ‘last in first out’, exemplifies exactly why ageism can be so harmful. This indirect form of discrimination appears to be treating each employee equally by suggesting redundancy to those with the fewest years of service, especially troubling if you’ve undertaken a later life career change.
Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear why this approach is unfair – although you might assume this targets younger workers, even older adults are not immune, as employers feel they might not have much more to offer in comparison to younger colleagues.
Depending on your place of work, dismissal on the basis of age can be an all-too-common temptation of your employer. Since 2006, and the later expansion from the Equality Act in 2010, this is illegal without objective justification.
Employers used to be able to force their employees to retire once they’d reached the official retirement age. Fortunately, this flavour of ageism is now illegal in the United Kingdom.
Your boss may discuss your plans with you – and indeed may have objective justification for asking you to retire – but they can’t force you to make this decision without a very good reason.
What You Can Do
If you’ve dealt with ageism in the workplace, it can be easy to feel hopeless. With the right knowledge and support, however, there are options available that should help. While this can be a stressful enough time as it is, it’s important to keep in mind that time is of the essence.
Before running through your options as a victim of ageism, it’s worth taking note of the following two organisations:
Both are excellent resources for those going through a workplace dispute. If in doubt, give them a call and they’ll be able to advise you on your next steps.
Below are your options when taking action.
Before going through official channels, you might feel comfortable raising the issue with your employer. They should immediately respond to your concerns and do everything in their power to put things right.
If you’re not comfortable with this option, or if it is unsuccessful, you could file a formal grievance with your company.
Your Employer’s Grievance Procedure
Ask your HR department or supervisor about your employer’s grievance procedure. This can look a little different depending on where you work. In general, however, it should follow the ACAS code and be easy to access.
You’ll be asked to detail what happened, when, and who was involved. The purpose of a grievance procedure is to take your concerns onboard and address them adequately.
If this too is unsuccessful, you may have to take your case to an employment tribunal.
In more severe cases, an employment tribunal may be necessary to settle the issue. Call ACAS to learn how best to approach this in your specific context. You’ll need to take action no more than 3 months since the first incident occurred.
Your grievance procedure will be taken into account at your tribunal.
In some cases, mediation may be enough to resolve your ageism dispute. This can happen at any stage in the process described above and is a service offered by ACAS. Learn more about how it all works here.
While everyone deserves equal treatment at work, the United Kingdom still has a long way to go before this ideal becomes a reality. ACAS, EASS, and AgeUK can be fantastic resources if you’re in need of support.
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