How to become an age-friendly employer
We will consider how your business can bring in a more diverse age group and the benefits to supporting attraction and retention.
This article was presented by a valued partner of Hiscox. We believe this to be useful to help small businesses thrive, but Hiscox does not attest to the validity of the content. To learn more on these subjects, please seek professional advice.
What do we mean by being ‘age-friendly’
Being an ‘age-friendly’ employer means you have a workplace that is open, inclusive, and supportive of people of all ages, not just one particular group.
Ageism in the workplace is a significant issue and can be a serious barrier to younger and older people having an equal opportunity to contribute to, participate in, and be valued in the workplace.
According to the UK Government, and the Centre for Ageing Better, the UK’s population is undergoing a massive age shift and that by 2050, one in four people will be over the age of 65, which will be an increase of 40%. Unfortunately, one in three people experience age prejudice and according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, more people of all ages say that they experience ageism than any other form of discrimination.
Older workers often face challenges related to limited career progression, reduced opportunities for training and development, and higher rates of involuntary job loss. At the other end of the scale, younger workers can face stereotypes and biases that undermine their abilities, expertise, and potential for growth. This hinders their opportunities for advancement and recognition, impeding their career progression and job satisfaction.
Why become an age-friendly employer?
Why become ‘age-friendly’? Well, apart from the obvious in that it is the right thing to do, and it will overcome the barriers that young and old workers face; it can also positively impact the business.
For example, it can:
- Improve candidate attraction and employee retention
- Lead to increased productivity
- Improve innovation
- Reduce costs
- Enhance the company’s reputation
- Mitigate against claims of discrimination.
Improve candidate attraction and employee retention
An organisation that is open, inclusive, and supportive of all ages will improve their ability to attract and retain staff. This is vital given that the labour and skill shortage in the UK market continues.
Employing a diverse workforce with a range of ages and therefore experiences, will bring new ideas and perspectives and therefore, lead to increased productivity.
Employing older workers, who have a wealth of experience and knowledge can be used to drive innovation.
By retaining older workers, you will save on recruitment and training costs.
Being age-friendly can make the business become more attractive to potential employees and customers.
Prevent tribunal claims
By embracing workers from across the age spectrum, you are less likely to face claims of age discrimination (young or old).
The legal framework
According to research carried out between YouGov and the Centre for Ageing Better in 2018, age is often neglected as a diversity issue compared to gender, race or disability. Yet under the Equality Act 2010, employers have the same responsibilities and legal obligations in relation to age as to any other protected characteristic.
The Equality Act 2010 prohibits less favourable or unfair treatment because of a protected characteristic. The UK have nine protected characteristics: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnerships, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation. No minimum length of service is required to bring a claim for age discrimination.
Discrimination because of age is unlawful; from when a role is advertised through to the last day of employment and beyond, including job references. Furthermore, employers and employees can both be liable for their own acts of discrimination, with employers sometimes also liable for the acts of their employees. This is known as vicarious liability. Vicarious liability may be avoided if the employer can show they took all reasonable steps to try to prevent the discrimination.
How age discrimination may happen
There are four main types of discrimination under the Equality Act:
- Direct discrimination (someone is treated less favourably than others)
- Indirect discrimination (where a provision, criterion or practice (PCP) applies equally to all, but disadvantages a person and a group of others who share a particular protected characteristic)
- Harassment (‘unwanted conduct’ which has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them)
- Victimisation (someone suffers a detriment because they have made, or may support an allegation of discrimination)
Where risks of age discrimination may happen
In guidance published by Acas, they have identified the following areas in which age discrimination is most likely to occur:
- Pay and terms and conditions of employment
- Performance management
- Flexible working.
Here are some examples of age discrimination against young workers:
- Treating a young worker differently from an older worker
- Inappropriate language to describe a young worker
- Refusal to pay a young worker the national minimum wage
- Imposing a job requirement that is too hard for young workers to meet
- Dismissal of a young worker on the basis of age
If someone looks younger than they are and is discriminated against on this basis (known as discrimination by perception)
Here are some examples of age discrimination against older workers:
- Not promoting an employee because they are too old
- Offering training courses to recent graduates only
- An employee making offensive jokes about a colleague’s age
- An employee is not given a promotion, which they would otherwise have been given after having made a witness statement supporting a colleague’s complaint of age discrimination.
- An employee is forced to retire because they reached the state pension age
There are certain exemptions within the Equality Act 2010 relating to age, our resource hub on discrimination (external link) explores these in more detail.
How to create a workplace that is open, inclusive and supportive of people of all ages?
There are many misconceptions about age; whether young or old. It can be helpful to think about what these are, so that you can identify measures to overcome them. By addressing them, you are creating an inclusive, age-friendly culture through supporting people of all ages.
For instance, negative perceptions could include:
- In experience
- Less conscientious
- Lack of knowledge
- Competence levels
- Age related ill health issues
- Impact on succession planning
- Not IT literate enough?
- Ability to learn new skills
- Caring responsibilities
- Speed / productivity
- Not interested in career, progression or the future of the business
- Nearing retirement
Of course, there is no evidence to support these perceptions.
Taking the employee lifecycle, here are suggestions for how you can build an age friendly culture:
Writing the essential documents
Employers should avoid suggestions that applicants should be in a particular age group. E.g., Avoid images showing only young people, or phrases such as ‘graduate position’.
Advertising the role
Try to use at least two different channels so the reach catches a broad scope of ages. Be careful of ‘word of mouth’ advertising if existing staff are mainly made up of people in the same age group.
Pinpointing skills, experience, and qualifications for the job
Be clear on the skills required so assessment of candidates can be objective. Avoid asking for a number of years’ experience, instead describe the type of experience needed. Only ask for qualifications which are necessary and consider whether aptitude can be shown in another way, such as with equivalent qualifications or skills. Apprentices must be at least 16 years old, but there should be no other age restriction on apprentices or trainees. Be careful with phrases such as ‘overqualified’ and ‘too much experience’ as these may indicate the employer is looking for someone younger.
Drafting the application form
Avoid asking for age, date of birth and dates of education and training – unless there is a genuine occupational requirement, such as a need to check training is still relevant and up to date.
Using social media
Be aware that certain networks may tend to be more popular with some age groups than others. Checking and recording an applicant’s age on their social media account may also bring data protection issues. Filtering tools based on age are likely to be discriminatory.
If an applicant gives their age, avoid being influenced by this detail. Interviewers should be trained to avoid asking discriminatory questions and making discriminatory assumptions. For example, interviewers should ask applicants about their management experience, not how they manage people older than themselves. And they should ask applicants to explain an example of when they adapted, rather than what they know about, for instance, a new piece of technology.
Seeking job references
A referee should not give a negative reference because of the applicant’s age and the new employer must not discriminate based on that information.
Offering the job
Always select the best applicant for the job. Do not rule someone out because of their age, how old you perceive them to be or the age of someone you learn they are connected with. Do not offer less attractive terms for these reasons either, e.g., a longer probation period because it is feared they may not fit because of age.
Using a recruitment agency
Agencies must comply with the Equality Act 2010 and should not pass on details of a person’s age. Employers are advised to tell agencies they would prefer a range of ages in applicants where possible – unless it is objectively justifiable to specify an age.
Pay and Terms and Conditions of Employment
Employers must not generally, have different terms and conditions because of age. However, there may be circumstances where exceptions should be made, for example in relation to the National Minimum and National Living Wage.
Employers must not deny training because of age, nor allow bias or assumptions based on age to impact who gets trained.
Employers should avoid denying training to young employees because they do not have enough experience or are in low paid roles.
Employers should ensure all employees are aware of opportunities for training and personal development. Be aware that training is likely to reduce under-performance. Encourage older employees who may be reluctant to discuss training needs for fear of being seen as under performers or ‘behind the times’.
Employers should consider dropping the ’26 weeks of service’ eligibility requirement and allow job applicants and employees to request flexible working from day one of employment (note, it is the intention that this service requirement will be abolished in the future).
Employers must ensure any dismissal for underperformance is based on relevant facts. Avoid non-discriminatory language e.g. instead of saying ‘I suppose there’s no point in training you in the new system now you are nearing 60’, say ‘We are giving all staff the chance to learn the new system – would you like the training?’
Employers should treat employees consistently when assessing performance and setting future goals – but may make reasonable adjustments for those who have a disability.
Employers should not ignore or overlook performance issues because the employee is older or younger than other staff.
Employers should always review an employee’s competency, typically through annual appraisals and a performance management system. Don’t stereotype because of someone’s age.
If employees no longer feel strong enough to work in the job they are engaged to do, can they transfer to a less physically demanding role? This should not be about age, but about an individual’s capability and the organisation’s usual performance management procedure should be used (to do otherwise, could be considered potentially age discriminatory!).
How can you best make use of your experienced employees’ knowledge? Demonstrate how much you value their expertise by using older members of the workforce as mentors.
Introducing a mentoring scheme to help newer employees/ trainees or a buddy system will support those going through professional development or young workers who are not long out of education.
Would your experienced employees consider helping others in the community? Perhaps through their professional bodies or the Chamber of Commerce? This would also be potential excellent PR for your business and job satisfaction for your staff.
Health and Fitness for all
Think about what you currently do to encourage all staff to keep fit and healthy. Could you enhance this further? Perhaps you could review your benefits and review to see what healthy living benefits you could offer.
Other benefits that support health and fitness could be medical support, such as health cash plans, and offering an Employee Assistance Programme (particularly helpful for mental health).
From a medical perspective, are you able to provide paid time off for screening appointments, or engage occupational health support? Employers already have a legal obligation to ensure reasonable adjustments are put in place, but can you broaden this to include everyone, even if their health issues are not considered a disability for the purpose of the Equality Act.
Supporting the menopause
Many people find they are little prepared for the onset of menopause and are even less equipped to manage its symptoms at work. They tend not to disclose their symptoms to their manager, particularly if they are young. Ensuring your organisation makes allowances for those experiencing the menopause is part of being an age friendly employer.
The menopause can occur naturally, or because of certain medical treatments or even by an underlying medical condition such as Down’s Syndrome or Addison’s Disease. It can also occur prematurely (which is generally considered any age before 40).
Workplaces and working practices are not designed with menopausal employees in mind. Heavy and painful periods, hot flushes, mood swings, fatigue and poor concentration can pose significant and embarrassing problems, resulting in lowered confidence. Employees may be uncomfortable disclosing their symptoms and problems to managers and when they need to take time off work to deal with their symptoms, many do not disclose the real reasons for their absence.
Some say they must work extremely hard to overcome their perceived shortcomings due to their menopause and others consider working part-time, despite the concern about the impact on their career. Some even think about leaving employment altogether.
Try putting in place:
- A menopause policy setting out the support you provide to staff
- Provision of information so that there is greater awareness among managers of the menopause as a real occupational health issue
- Provision of a culture where women feel comfortable about discussing their symptoms and what impact that has on their working lives
- Options around flexible working hours and working arrangements to help manage symptoms
- Improved access to support – formal or informal from a named person
- Options to improve your work environment temperature and ventilation.
From an older person’s perspective, social engagement is really important. Younger employees tend to use social media to keep in touch with friends, but older people tend to value face-to-face contact more. So, think about working arrangements that mean staff do not feel lonely, which will help your organisation to become more age friendly.
Remember, some people come to work for companionship. It is however important not to stereotype too. Young people can also feel isolated, so take an active position on ensuring that all staff are actively involved in the business. Adopting a solely “remote-working” model after Covid-19 may have unintended consequences with regards to productivity and staff cohesion.
Career breaks: health and caring responsibilities
The “Sandwich” generation (coined 1981), which is about looking after elderly parents and children at the same time. It originally described women in their 30s and 40s, but now applies to men and women in their 50s and 60s as we have tended to have children later in life coupled with a longer lifespan with people living with complex medical conditions e.g. dementia.
There are many individuals who will have a need to respond to a crisis, in relation to someone they will have caring responsibilities for and so staff may feel they have no alternative but to resign if they do not believe the business can support them.
Possible options could include unpaid sabbaticals for caring responsibilities, especially when dealing with end-of-life situations for elderly relatives. Flexible working (either permanent or temporary basis) or a confidential counselling provision, such as an Employee Assistance Programme.
Retaining employees with vast experience and knowledge is massively important. Consider the benefits that your older employees bring to your business and think about the concerns that might arise, and how you might address these.
- Do you offer retirement planning support?
- Do you offer access to financial planning advice? (Remember you are not allowed to provide financial advice if you are not qualified!)
- Do you discuss this during appraisal meetings?
- Do you encourage staff to attend external planning courses?
- Pension providers sometimes offer relevant courses.
- Charities such as Age UK and other independent outplacement services also offer such courses.
Employers must ensure that decisions are based on factors such as skills, work performance and abilities needed in the re-structured organisation.
Employers must not select staff for redundancy because they are part time, as this is likely to involve discrimination against older employees. Nor must they select younger staff for redundancy to avoid higher redundancy pay outs.
Employers must avoid raising or prompting discussion about when the employee might retire, asking ‘when are you planning to retire?’, suggesting they retire or putting pressure on them to retire.
Employers must not treat an employee detrimentally because they are thinking about retiring or could already take their work pension or State pension. They must not make the mistake of thinking they have the right to change an employee’s employment contract once they take any pension.
Employee Value Proposition
Having developed initiatives for becoming an age-friendly employer, the next part is about ensuring you can get that message communicated internally and externally. Your priority should be about the retention of staff but also the ability to attract the best candidates. This is where having an Employee Value Proposition is needed.
Your Employee Value Proposition (also known as EVP) and is the unique set of benefits that an employee receives in return for the skills, capabilities, and experiences that they then bring to the organisation. The ability to accurately define your own organisations’ EVP can enable you to effectively attract the best talent but also help you to retain the best.
Using your EVP to communicate that you are an age-friendly employer
Here are just some ways in which you can translate being an age-friendly employer through your EVP:
- Hire age positively (whilst not breaking the Equality Act!)
- Actively target candidates of all ages, and minimise age bias in recruitment processes
- Write adverts to focus on the precise behaviours and skills required rather than the personality of the applicant
- , replace younger-aged stereotypes such as “innovative” or “energetic” with specific competencies such as “programming skills” or “contributing new ideas”
- Use inclusive rather than exclusive language in your recruitment document (adverts, job descriptions, person specifications etc)
- , replace “recent graduate” with “suitably trained”
- Emphasise employer benefits
- such as those around pension contributions, flexible working, and professional development
- Consider including language that is more appealing to older applicants.
- , “knowledgeable”, “dependable”, and “experienced” (as long as they are accurate!)
- Consider including a diversity statement, particularly those that specifically emphasise age-inclusive hiring.
- Be flexible about flexible working
- Offer more flexibility, manage it well and help people know their options
- Ensure everyone has the health support they need
- Enable early and open conversations, and early and sustained access to support for workers with health conditions
- Encourage career development at all ages
- Provide opportunities for people to develop their careers and plan for the future at mid-life and beyond
- Create an age-positive culture
- Equip HR professionals and managers to promote an age-positive culture, and support interaction and networking among staff.
Further HR Guidance
- Webinar Recording: you can watch the HR Solutions webinar and download the webinar slides, at https://www.hrsolutions-uk.com/resources/videos-webinars-archive/ (external link)
- HR Knowledge Base: as part of your Hiscox membership, you can get access to the HR Knowledge Base, which is the go-to resource for thousands of business owners and managers across the UK. The HR Knowledge Base includes HR documents, templates, legal updates, news and hot topic articles as well as access to free webinars and HR seminars.