This is intended to give an overview of age discrimination law in the UK and provide you with some practical examples to help you understand how it applies.
What is age discrimination?
The Equality Act covers the following types of discrimination:
- direct discrimination
- indirect discrimination
This is where a decision is made because of
- a person's age
- a person's perceived age
- the age of someone a person is associated with (such as a friend or family member)
Direct discrimination is not always, and does not need to be, intentional.
- An employer rejects a candidate for a job because she is over 50 and he thinks she will not portray the youthful image he wants for the business.
- An employee is overlooked for promotion because he is 61 and the employer thinks he’ll be retiring soon.
- A 25 year old is rejected for a post selling insurance because the employer wants an older salesperson with ‘gravitas’.
- An employer does not extend an invitation to a social event to an employee and her husband because her husband is much older than her and would not ‘fit in’ with the other employees.
This is where an employer applies a provision, criterion or practice which applies equally to all ages but which results in a disadvantage to people of a certain age or age group. Like direct discrimination, indirect discrimination need not be intentional.
- An employer requires that a candidate for a job has at least ten years’ experience. This will disadvantage younger people and is therefore indirectly discriminatory.
- An employer selects for redundancy on the basis of ‘Last In, First Out’. This will tend to disadvantage younger people, who are more likely to have joined recently, and is likely therefore to be indirectly discriminatory.
This is defined as unwanted conduct related to age which has the purpose or effect of:
- violating a person’s dignity; or
- creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the person.
Employers are responsible for ageist harassment by their staff in the course of employment, unless they can show that they took all reasonable steps to prevent it occurring. Employers can also be liable for harassment perpetrated by third parties (such as customers) if the employer knows that the employee has been harassed and does not take reasonable steps to prevent it.
- On her 50th birthday an employee receives a card describing her as ‘over the hill’. Other employees in her department constantly tell her that she is ‘past it’ and ‘out of touch’ when she makes any suggestions during meetings. She is not invited to drinks after work as they are in a fashionable bar with a youthful clientele and other employees say she will embarrass them. She feels marginalised and upset as a result. This is likely to be unlawful age harassment.
- A 60 year old shop assistant is upset because a regular customer has been making jokes about him being overdue for retirement and keeps calling him ‘grandad’. On each occasion the shop assistant complained to his manager about the remarks. The manager does nothing and tells the assistant to ignore it. This may be unlawful age harassment.
Anyone who makes a complaint of age discrimination (whether to the employer or to a tribunal), or assists someone else’s complaint, is protected from being treated unfavourably as a result.
The burden of proof: avoiding the inference of age discrimination
If the claimant can point to facts which suggest discrimination might have occurred, the burden of proof will switch to the employer to prove it did not discriminate.
Employees who bring age discrimination claims will therefore want to point to the practices adopted by their employer to support their allegations. Relevant information (including statistics) can be extracted by asking questions of the employer. Whilst this kind of information may not prove that age discrimination has taken place, it may be used to invite the tribunal to draw inferences of discrimination. Inferences of discrimination can also be drawn where an employer refuses to ask questions.
It is vital that employers can show why they made a particular employment decision in case they are forced to prove that they did not discriminate. Consistent, transparent and well-documented decision-making is, therefore, essential.
Statistics may show that an employer’s workforce as a whole is not age diverse. They may also demonstrate that a particular process (such as a recruitment or redundancy exercise) has led to an age-skewed outcome.
In either case, this will not necessarily prove that age discrimination has in fact taken place. However, inferences may be drawn from such statistics requiring the employer to prove that it did not discriminate.
Points that employers should consider include:
- If the statistics suggest that the whole or part of the workforce is not age diverse, consider why and whether positive action may be appropriate (see below).
- If an employer adopts good practices, then it should be easier to rebut any presumption of discrimination from unfavourable statistics.
- Effective implementation of a comprehensive, up-to-date equal opportunities policy with appropriate training should have a beneficial impact on workforce statistics in the medium to long term. In the meantime, such measures will in themselves help the employer to resist discrimination claims.
Can age discrimination be justified?
Employers are able to try to justify age discrimination, whether it is direct or indirect. (In this respect, the Act differs from other strands of discrimination such as sex and race, which do not permit justification of direct discrimination.)
Harassment, however, can never be legally justified.
Justification will be established if an employer can show that what it has done is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.
The European Equal Treatment Framework Directive No. 2000/78 (‘the Directive’), which makes age discrimination laws compulsory throughout the EU, gives some examples of possible legitimate aims:
- employment planning;
- the training requirements of a position;
- rewarding loyalty; and
- the need for a reasonable period before retirement.
It is more difficult to justify direct discrimination than indirect because the aims of an individual employer are not sufficient to justify direct discrimination without an additional ‘social policy objective’. However, indirect age discrimination can be justified by a wider range of legitimate aims, including simply the employer’s own, in the same way as any other form of indirect discrimination.
Consistent with other forms of discrimination, an employer cannot justify discrimination solely because not discriminating would involve increased costs. However, it may be able to show that it has a lawful ‘legitimate aim’ which also has a cost-saving element.
- An employer seeks an IT technician who has recently graduated. The employer concedes this may indirectly discriminate against older workers, but says this is justified because recent skills in new technology are extremely important for the position. This may possibly be justified, but only if there is no less discriminatory way of achieving the legitimate aim of ensuring up-to-date skills in new technology, such as testing all applicants for those skills.
- An employer limits its recruitment for manual labourers to those under 55. It seeks to justify this on the basis that it is a physically demanding job and it is essential that those employed are fit, healthy and able to do the job properly without endangering health and safety. Although these are likely be legitimate aims, the assumptions are based on a stereotypical view of people over 55. An employment tribunal would almost certainly expect the employer to make a case-by-case assessment of fitness and health.
- An employer does not allow employees under 25 to drive a company car. It seeks to justify the discrimination on the basis that insurance premiums more than double for this category of employee. An employer is unlikely to be able to justify discrimination on cost alone.
- An employer in financial difficulties conducts a redundancy process which aims to carry out as many redundancies as possible within a certain budget. It does not select individuals for redundancy on the basis of their age but does select the ones with the lowest redundancy pay entitlements. This means a disproportionate number of younger employees are selected because they have shorter service and therefore smaller redundancy payment entitlements. This could be indirectly discriminatory but the employer may be able to justify it, as its legitimate aim is to carry out a large-scale redundancy process with associated cost savings
Who is covered by the age discrimination laws?
A wide variety of people are protected by age discrimination laws, including:
- people engaged on some other sort of contract (for example agency workers or self employed freelancers)
- people who apply for work
- office holiders (such as company directors)
- people undertaking or applying for work-related training (for example apprentices or interns)
It can be difficult to determine which self-employed people come within the legislation and which fall outside.
- A company hires a freelance IT consultant to work on a project for six months. The company contracts directly with the consultant and she is required to carry out the work personally, to submit VAT invoices and be responsible for all her own taxes. The consultant would be protected by the legislation.
- A builder is engaged to carry out maintenance work. He only works when he is needed and there are often periods of several weeks when he does no work for the company. He is treated as self-employed. The company contracts with him personally. The builder would be protected.
- A temp is supplied to a company by an employment agency. She is employed by the agency and protected from age discrimination at the hands of the agency. She would also be protected in relation to her treatment by the ‘end-user’ company.
- A company of contract cleaners has a large workforce consisting of a mixture of permanent employees and casual workers. The casual workers are treated as being self-employed and work on an ad hoc basis. The cleaning company has a contract to provide services to a particular client and sends whichever casual cleaners are available at the time. The cleaners would be protected in relation to discrimination by both the cleaning company and the end-user client.
What about overseas workers?
The Act does not expressly set out its geographical scope and its application will be determined according to case law.
As well as applying to employees who do all of their work in Great Britain, the Act applies where the employee’s place of work is not Great Britain but the connection with Great Britain is sufficiently strong.
For example, where the employer is a British organisation based in Great Britain and the employee:
- is working overseas but within what can be regarded as an extra-territorial British political or social enclave (such as a military base);
- is posted abroad for the purposes of a business carried on in Great Britain (for example a foreign correspondent of a British newspaper); or
- is posted abroad as a representative of a business carried on in Great Britain.
These examples are not comprehensive. The Act will apply to any individuals who can establish that their employment has a closer connection with Great Britain than with any other country.
- A sales director is employed by a British company, but is based in Germany. The majority of his work involves visiting German clients but he also travels to London once or twice a month for meetings with colleagues and clients. He carries out his work partly in Great Britain and would therefore probably be covered by the Act.
- A British newspaper makes an offer to a journalist to become its American correspondent. The journalist is living in the UK when the offer of employment is made but moves to New York to write a daily column. This work is only for publication in the British newspaper. The journalist may be covered by the Act.
- An IT manager works for a company with offices in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland and the work she carries out is for the purposes of both offices. She has never been resident in Great Britain and has never done any of her work in Great Britain. She may not be covered by the Act, although she might be covered by Irish age discrimination laws.
The Act applies to vocational training and employers have to justify any scheme conditions which directly or indirectly discriminate on grounds of age.
- A law firm runs a summer placement programme to give prospective lawyers a glimpse of the lawyer's work. It also helps the law firm to identify and attract prospective trainees. Only students in the last two years of study are eligible. This rule disadvantages older candidates who are less likely to be studying. The law firm would have to justify this rule and is likely to struggle to do this.
The key considerations for employers in relation to recruitment are as follows:
- Are they applying any job requirements that are directly or indirectly discriminatory? If so, can those requirements be objectively justified?
- What are the relevant exceptions to the Act?
- How can the recruitment process be improved so as to avoid inferences of age discrimination being drawn?
Age limits and ranges
Having an age or age range requirement for a position - whether explicit or covert - will constitute direct age discrimination, unless it is justified. Objective justification in these circumstances is likely to be difficult. The employer will have to explain its need for age limits and show that there was no less discriminatory means of meeting that need. It will require cogent evidence in support.
- Andrew, a 68 year old, applies for a job that requires six months' training. He is unsuccessful. The company has a retirement age of 70. Provided the company can justify the retirement age (see below) it may be able to justify its rejection of Andrew's application on age grounds by reference both to the training requirements and its need to get a reasonable period of work from him before he retires.
Frequently, employers require applicants to have a minimum (or maximum) amount of experience.
- Bolans Investment Bank advertises for secretaries with 'at least five years' experience'. This condition may be indirectly discriminatory as younger applicants are less likely to be able to meet it. If so, Bolans will have to justify the requirement if challenged.
When considering justification, a tribunal will balance the discriminatory impact of the requirement against the employer's need (in this case to have a competent and skilled applicant).
It will also consider whether a less discriminatory requirement could have been used - for example, whether the employer could have set out the types of skills and experience the ideal candidate would possess rather than refer to years of experience. It might also be preferable to say something like 'the ideal candidate will normally have several years' experience', or to set out the type of experience the candidate should have, rather than set prescribed limits.
In practice, it may be easier to justify a requirement for a lower number of years' experience than a higher number. Not only is the discriminatory impact less, as fewer candidates will be disadvantaged, but also it is more tenable to use experience as a proxy for individual competencies where a shorter period is concerned. But drawing the line will be difficult and employers are best advised only to use years of experience where absolutely necessary.
Points an employer should consider before adopting an experience requirement include:
- Does a candidate genuinely need a minimum level of experience for the post? If so, why? Remember, the higher the number of years of experience required, the harder it will be to justify.
- Does the employer genuinely need to specify a maximum level of experience for the post? If so, why? If the employer does not want an applicant who is 'overqualified', what does it mean by this? Assumptions that a more experienced person will not be able to take instructions from somebody junior, or will want more pay, or will be insufficiently motivated, or will leave soon for a better job, may not be sufficient to justify an upper limit on experience as these concerns could be addressed on a case by case basis, possibly at interview.
- Could a less discriminatory requirement be used instead? For example, could the requirement for experience be described in terms of types of experience rather than years?
Limiting employment to those who are graduates - whether as a job requirement for a particular position or by operating graduate recruitment schemes - may, in itself, be indirectly discriminatory and so require justification.
- Sharper Sales requires its sales staff to be graduates. This requirement is indirectly discriminatory: it is less likely that older people would be able to comply with it as far more people graduate these days. Joe, who is aged 48, applies for the post and is unsuccessful. He has 20 years' experience in sales and a diploma, but no degree. Sharper Sales will have to show why a degree was necessary for the position and why a mix of education and experience like Joe's was not sufficient.
- An international management consultancy firm runs a graduate recruitment scheme which is limited to graduates who have completed their degree within the last five years. The firm targets recruitment for these positions by attending universities as part of the 'milk round'. The requirements to be a graduate and to have graduated within the last five years and the attendance at the 'milk round' are all potentially indirectly discriminatory as they are likely to place older workers at a disadvantage. The firm will have to justify these requirements on objective grounds, which may be difficult.
In most cases, the kind of jobs that are filled by means of a graduate recruitment scheme are limited to graduates because they require a minimum level of analytical skill and ability that is evidenced by higher education qualifications.
As such, employers in many cases should still be able to justify the operation of such schemes. Certainly this has been the view of the Government. However, employers often add additional requirements to such schemes or operate them in ways which have the potential to expose them to claims of age discrimination.
There are a number of points that an employer should consider in relation to a graduate recruitment scheme:
- Is the requirement for the candidate to be a graduate really necessary? Is there an adequate alternative way of assessing relevant skills and abilities?
- Age limits in graduate recruitment schemes will be directly discriminatory and in most cases very difficult to justify. Such requirements should be removed.
- Is a requirement for the candidate to have graduated within a certain number of years necessary? This will be indirectly discriminatory – although graduates can be of any age, most of those who graduated recently will be younger. This may be easier to justify where the position requires up-to-date technical expertise, for example forensic scientists or computer programmers. But even then there may be less discriminatory ways of assessing their expertise.
- A requirement that candidates have no previous work experience will be indirectly discriminatory as older people will be less likely to meet it. Employers may struggle to justify such a requirement.
- Traditionally, employers who run graduate recruitment schemes have focused on universities. In the Government's view it should be easier for employers to justify this kind of indirect discrimination, provided they do not exclude applications from other sources. Employers would, however, be best advised to participate in recruitment drives beyond the 'milk round' to avoid claims of age discrimination.
- Review the graduate recruitment scheme brochure. Does the imagery and/or language used suggest the employer is seeking applicants of a particular age? Does it include a statement of commitment to equal opportunities?
Time at work requirements
Employers sometimes stipulate that applicants for a position must be able regularly to work late, work weekends and/or travel abroad. Such requirements may be age discriminatory (as well as potentially sex discriminatory). People within a particular age group are more likely to have childcare commitments which make it more difficult for them to comply with such requirements. (Importantly, it is not just 'old' and 'young' people who are protected by the Act.) Employers may therefore have to justify such requirements on objective grounds.
Exceptions to the Act
An exception applies where being a particular age or member of a particular age group is an occupational requirement. This exception applies only in very limited circumstances, for example in relation to actors.
Employers who identify a lack of age diversity within their workforce may wish to take steps to redress this imbalance. They are best advised to rely upon the positive action exceptions. (Positive action must be distinguished from positive discrimination, which is unlawful.)
Where persons of a particular age group are disadvantaged or have particular needs or are participating in an activity in disproportionately low numbers, an employer can take action (provided it is proportionate) to enable that age group to overcome the disadvantage, meet those needs or encourage increased participation.
his might include, for example, a mentoring scheme or training aimed at those of a particular age group.
The second positive action exception only applies to recruitment and promotion. If persons of a particular age group are disadvantaged or there are disproportionately low numbers of that age group participating in a particular activity, the employer could treat a person of that age more favourably in recruitment or promotion provided that person is as qualified as any other candidate. This is only lawful if the employer’s actions are proportionate and it does not have a policy of treating people of that age group more favourably.
- Wired Communications wishes to encourage age diversity within its workforce as the majority of its customer sales staff are young. It decides to limit future applicants to those over the age of 40. This will be direct discrimination which will require objective justification. Tribunals will be very reluctant to uphold this kind of requirement because of its discriminatory impact. Alternatively, Wired Communications could rely upon the less onerous requirements of the general positive action exception and take steps to encourage applications from older workers, which would be risk free. Or, if after a completely open recruitment process Wired Communications had a short list of two equally qualified candidates, one aged 25 and the other 45, it could select the older worker provided it does not have a policy of treating older workers more favourably in recruitment.
Although job advertisements may not be openly discriminatory, they may be used by unsuccessful applicants to demonstrate that the employer had discriminatory attitudes or practices - so leading to an inference of age discrimination being drawn.
- An advertisement states that candidates must be 'vibrant, enthusiastic and dynamic with lots of energy'. This tends to suggest that the employer is seeking a younger candidate.
- An advertisement states that candidates must be 'mature' and 'have gravitas and boardroom presence'. This may suggest that the employer is seeking an older candidate.
- An advertisement states that the employer is seeking an 'office junior' and that 'this is a fantastic opportunity to really kick start your career and get on the corporate ladder'. An unsuccessful older candidate may point to this advertisement and invite the tribunal to infer that the employer had a younger applicant in mind.
Points for employers to consider in relation to advertisements include:
- If an advertisement includes requirements for the position which may be discriminatory, consider whether they are necessary. Can such requirements be objectively justified? Could a requirement with a less discriminatory effect be used?
- Consider what competencies are required for the position and ensure this is reflected in the advertisement. If adjectives are used, consider whether the advertisement overall suggests that the employer has a younger or older candidate in mind.
- Be careful as to how the employer is described as well as the potential candidate. Stating that the employee will be joining a 'funky young company' may suggest the employer is seeking a younger employee.
- Consider including a commitment to equal opportunities in the advertisement.
Again, asking for certain information in an application form will not be age discriminatory in itself, but inferences of age discrimination may be drawn from the information sought.
Points to consider in relation to application forms include:
- Can references to age or date of birth be deleted from the application form? Instead, this information could be provided on a separate form (such as a diversity monitoring form) not seen by those short-listing.
- Asking for dates of education and qualifications on an application form may suggest the age of the applicant.
- Dates of employment may also suggest an applicant's age. However, this information is usually relevant in order to assess experience, identify short periods of employment and identify employment gaps. Therefore, depending on the nature of the position, it is likely to be easier for an employer to justify requesting this type of information.
Short-listing and interviewing
It is vital for employers to shortlist and interview in a non-discriminatory manner to avoid claims of age discrimination:
- Candidates should be short-listed and selected using transparent and objective written selection criteria, based on competencies for the job, in order for the employer to be able to prove that the decision was not discriminatory.
- Notes should be taken of all interviews.
- Whether the candidate was successful or unsuccessful should be documented. This information should be kept for at least six months after the recruitment exercise.
- Ensure that those short-listing and interviewing have received equal opportunities and interview training. They should be able to recognise and avoid discriminatory questioning and avoid stereotypical and discriminatory assumptions based on a candidate's age.
- Have an equal opportunities policy in place which includes age discrimination and ensure interviewers have read it and understood it.
Discrimination during employment
As with other anti-discrimination laws, age discrimination during employment is prohibited in relation to:
- terms of employment;
- pay and other benefits;
- opportunities for promotion, training and transfer.
There is also a right not to be subjected to harassment related to age.
Remuneration packages, particularly pay, often have elements which are related to length of service. These may well place younger workers at a disadvantage compared to older workers and could therefore amount to unlawful indirect discrimination unless employers are able to justify them in each case. The Act contains exceptions for some service-related benefits, which apply to employees and other workers, including partners.
In counting employees' length of service for these purposes, an employer has the choice between counting service at or above a particular level or grade, or counting an employee's total continuous service.
These exceptions do not apply to termination awards or payments such as enhanced redundancy pay which are dealt with separately (see below).
The five-year exception
There is an automatic exception for benefits based on up to five years' service. An employer who awards a benefit falling within this exception does not need to justify its policy, even if it is indirectly discriminatory.
- An employer has a basic holiday entitlement of 20 days a year, plus bank holidays. The employer also awards an extra day's holiday per year of service, up to a maximum of five years. This applies to all employees in the organisation. This benefit would fall within the five-year exception.
The business need exception
For benefits which are based on service beyond five years, there is a partial exception. Objective justification is not required, but the exception only applies where it reasonably appears to an employer that using a service-related criterion fulfils a business need, for example:
- encouraging loyalty or motivation; or
- rewarding experience.
Employers must be able to explain why they believe their service-related benefit fulfils the business need in question and the tribunal will determine whether, objectively speaking, a business need was reasonably being fulfilled.
An employer has a sabbatical policy which allows employees to take six months' leave after ten years of service. This places younger workers at a disadvantage as they are less likely to have such long service. If the employer can show that it has a business need to reward or encourage loyal employees, and that the sabbatical policy fulfils that need, this is likely to fall within the exception.
Justifying other service-related benefits
Most service-related benefits are likely to come within one of the exceptions above.
In other situations, such as service-related termination payments, objective justification will be required if the service criteria put people in one age group at a particular disadvantage when compared with others.
Benefits related to experience
Employers sometimes make particular benefits dependent on experience. Experience most often has an impact on pay, especially in setting starting salaries. Unlike service-related benefits, there are no 'automatic' exceptions applicable to experience requirements. The general principles apply and employers will have to justify experience criteria that put employees in one age group at a particular disadvantage when compared with others. Benefits or pay which are related to experience which can be gained over a short period of time are unlikely to have such an impact.
- Intec, an IT company, employs Joe, aged 45, as a Sales Executive. His starting salary of £60,000 was based on 15 years' experience. Harry, 34, is also a Sales Executive with a salary of £52,000, based on 6 years' experience. Harry complains that he has outperformed Joe while at Intec and the salary differential based on years of experience is indirectly discriminatory. Intec may struggle to justify this pay differential.
The National Minimum Wage and National Living Wage
The pay bands in the National Minimum Wage (NMW) and National Living Wage (NLW) legislation have a special exemption.
The exception allows employers to pay employees in one NMW or NLW age group more than a younger NMW age group that is doing the same job.
Insurance benefits include schemes such as private medical/dental insurance, income protection insurance (IPI), critical illness cover and life assurance. These tend to become more expensive for older employees.
The Act includes a specific exemption which provides that an employer can withdraw or refuse to offer these benefits to employees when they reach the age of 65.
The wording of the exemption suggests that it only applies to employers who stop providing insurance benefits to employees as soon as they reach the age of 65. If an employer continues providing the benefit for a further period, for example, until employees are 70, this may fall outside the exception, meaning that the employer would have to objectively justify the policy.
The drafting of the exemption means that an employer who self-insures rather than use a third party insurer will not be covered (unless its business is the provision of insurance).
Some option plans contain discriminatory rules relating, for example, to good and bad leavers. The fact that the plan rules were drafted elsewhere (e.g. in the USA by a parent company and apply globally) will not release the UK employer from the obligation to justify any discriminatory elements.
- Oregon Technology (UK) grants stock options in its US parent company to its UK executives. It defines good leavers who retain their options as including those who retire and bad leavers as including those who resign. If the company treats those who elect to retire at retirement age differently from those who chose to leave earlier it will have to justify this. This might not be straightforward.
Statutory redundancy pay
Statutory redundancy payments remain calculated partly on the basis of age. An age-related multiplier is applied to employees' years of service as follows:
• ½ a week's pay for ages 21 and under;
• 1 week's pay for ages 22 to 40; and
• 1 ½ weeks' pay for ages 41 and over.
A week's pay is capped (the current rates are available here). A maximum 20 years' service can be counted, and an employee must have two years' continuous service to qualify at all.
Enhanced redundancy pay
There is an exception in the Act to allow the payment of enhanced redundancy pay, where this is based on the calculation method of the statutory scheme. This allows employers to:
- base payments on an uncapped week's pay;
- apply a multiple for the relevant number of weeks' pay per year of service. This would be a multiple (which must be the same for everyone) of the statutory multiple (which differs depending on age);
- apply a multiple (which must be the same for everyone) to the total payment; and/or
- include employees with less than two years' service.
In all other respects it must comply with the statutory redundancy pay calculation including, for example, maintaining the service cap of 20 years.
However, very few enhanced schemes come within this exception.
Most schemes do not incorporate the statutory scheme's age bands. Some use a different cap on the number of years’ service which can count or calculate a week's pay differently.
Many incorporate other elements such as a cap on the redundancy payment so that it can not be more than the employee's earnings to retirement. With enhanced schemes that are not covered by the exception it will be necessary to justify all indirectly or directly discriminatory features.
One common feature of enhanced schemes is the use of length of service (but not age multiples) in calculating the payment. This is likely to be indirectly discriminatory as it disadvantages younger employees.
As enhanced redundancy payments do not fall within the service related benefits exception referred to above, this use of service will require objective justification.
The employer's legitimate aim will presumably be rewarding loyalty but it should satisfy itself that the effect of the scheme is proportionate. What has been critical in the cases which have been decided on this point is that the employer has been able to show that it has given consideration to the legitimate aim that it is pursuing and is able to show that the discriminatory elements of the scheme contribute to that aim.
- Westington Industries' enhanced redundancy policy provides for one month's pay for each year of service with a minimum payment of three months' pay and a maximum of 24 months' pay. The payment is capped at remuneration to normal retirement date. This scheme does not come within the statutory scheme because it does not incorporate the statutory age bands, provides for a minimum of three months' pay and caps redundancy pay at both 24 months' pay and pay to retirement. Any of these four elements would be enough to take the scheme outside the enhanced redundancy pay exception. Westington would have to objectively justify each directly or indirectly discriminatory aspect of the scheme (including the discriminatory aspects which would have been lawful if the scheme had come within the enhanced redundancy pay exception). The cap on pay to retirement disadvantages those approaching retirement age but may well be justified on the basis that the principal aim of the redundancy payment is to cushion the financial implications of unemployment. The maximum of 24 months’ pay disadvantages older workers, who will be more likely than younger workers to have more than 24 years’ service. Reasons of cost alone cannot justify discrimination but Westington may be able to justify this on the basis that its aim is to have a fair redundancy pay scheme within a certain budget. The absence of any age bands and the minimum payments do not disadvantage particular age groups. However, Westington would have to justify tying redundancy pay to service. Where an employer can show that it gave consideration to justification, tribunals have shown themselves generally willing to accept this.
Remember that age discrimination claims can arise from enhanced redundancy payments whether they are made under a contractual scheme, or a scheme which is described as discretionary, or even one which has never been published to employees.
The Act covers pensions and there is a general rule that the trustees and managers of a pension scheme must not discriminate against its members on the grounds of age. However, as pensions are inherently linked to age the Act deals with the potential discrimination arising from this by providing a number of exceptions.
Most of the exceptions relate only to occupational pension schemes (i.e. those administered by the employer). Where employers make pension contributions on behalf of employees into personal pension schemes, including group personal pensions (GPPs), only limited exceptions apply.
The following exceptions apply to employer contributions to personal schemes (including GPPs):
- Making contributions at different rates based on the age of employees is allowed, provided that the purpose of this is to equalise (or try to equalise) the amount of benefit (reflecting the greater cost of providing pension benefits to employees as they get older). Different rates which are attributable to pay differentials are also allowed.
- Equal rates of contributions irrespective of age are permitted.
- It is permissible to set a minimum age for commencement of payment of employer contributions. However, employers may not set a maximum age, and will not be permitted to reduce or cease contributions for employees over a particular age unless this can be objectively justified.
Some of the main exceptions applying only to occupational pension schemes are:
- Different contribution rates by employers or employees based on age are permitted, provided the aim is to equalise benefits/reflect the increasing cost of providing benefits (as for personal pension schemes).
- Age-related criteria can be used in actuarial calculations, for example in relation to employer and employee contributions, or for benefits taken before or after normal pension age.
- Minimum and maximum ages can be fixed for employees joining pension schemes, and different ages can be set for different categories of employees. However, there is no exception allowing employees to be removed from schemes or moved to less favourable schemes if they stay on past retirement.
- Pension schemes can fix a minimum age for entitlement to pension benefits (separate pensions legislation set a minimum age at which pensions benefits can be drawn).
- Some schemes provide for early retirement with enhanced or unreduced pensions in certain circumstances. Where this applies on redundancy or ill health, there is an exception allowing enhancement of benefits. In other circumstances, it is permitted for employees who were active or prospective members of the scheme on 1 December 2006, but not for new joiners. The exception allows a minimum age to be set for these benefits.
- It is not age discrimination to close a scheme to new members.
Training, promotion and employment opportunities
Employers need to ensure that employees are not deprived of opportunities in employment because of their age. Employees of all ages should be given the same opportunities for training, personal development and to apply for promotion. They should also have their performance assessed in the same way.
In particular, employers should be careful to avoid making assumptions about employees based on their age and also implementing systems or training programmes which could indirectly discriminate against a particular age group.
- A manager undertakes annual appraisals and discusses with staff their training objectives and career aspirations. The manager does not have these discussions with an employee aged 62, assuming he is not interested in career development as he is close to retirement. As a result, the employee is denied the opportunity to undertake some presentation skills training. This would be unlawful age discrimination.
- A company's performance management system involves staff being assessed for 'potential'. Older workers generally receive low scores under this heading, affecting their opportunities for promotion and the amount of bonus they receive. This employer is at serious risk of successful legal challenges by disadvantaged employees.
Employers need to take steps to ensure that employees are not exposed to a discriminatory working environment. The Act prohibits employers from subjecting employees to harassment by engaging in unwanted conduct related to age (or perceived age) which has the purpose or effect of:
- violating the employee's dignity; or
- creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the employee.
Because of the way the harassment provisions are worded, it is also unlawful to harass someone because of the age of someone they are associated with, for example because they have a spouse who is much older or younger than them.
Employers are responsible for harassment by their employees in the course of employment, unless they can show that they took all reasonable steps to prevent it happening.
There does not need to be any intent to harass or to cause offence for conduct to constitute harassment. An employee can still suffer harassment if the effect of the actions is to violate dignity or cause humiliation or offence. This is assessed objectively, taking into account the perception of the victim.
The question of whether conduct is 'unwanted' will sometimes be unclear. It will not always be necessary for an employee to tell his or her harasser that the behaviour is unwanted.
- An employer dismisses a 60 year old employee for poor performance. The employee submits an employment tribunal claim for age discrimination, alleging that during the last few years of his employment, he has been the butt of ageist jokes. The employee never complained about this, but says that is because he joined in with the banter to avoid causing problems when in fact he felt humiliated and offended. The employee might have a claim for harassment if he brings his claim in time, but at the least the employment tribunal may consider that it is evidence of an ageist culture, which could support his claim that his dismissal was discriminatory.
Employers need to ensure that their harassment and dignity at work policies deal with ageist harassment and should take steps to foster a culture in which age discrimination is not tolerated. This issue should also be included in employers' equal opportunities and diversity training. Employers who fail to take such steps are likely to find tribunals drawing inferences of unlawful discrimination in subsequent claims.
Age discrimination claims can arise on the termination of employment in three ways:
- when the employer's reason for terminating the employment is age (normally retirement) - this is direct age discrimination;
- when the reason for dismissal is potentially indirect age discrimination; or
- when the employee claims that age played a part in the dismissal.
Employers were previously able to retire employees at the age of 65 without the risk of facing an age discrimination claim. This has now changed and with effect from 6 April 2011 any dismissal because of age which was not initiated before that date will constitute direct age discrimination.
As a result, many employers do not have a retirement age and allow employees to retire whenever they wish. If an employer wishes to set a retirement age, it must be able to objectively justify the age at which it is set.
The Supreme Court has held that the types of legitimate aims that can be used to justify direct age discrimination must be based on ‘social policy objectives’. It accepted two aims of this type: ‘inter-generational fairness’ (including facilitating access to employment for young people and sharing work fairly between the generations); and ‘dignity’ (based on avoiding taking older workers through incapacity or underperformance processes). It decided that it was not necessary for the legitimate aim to have been articulated by the employer at the time; the aim must be genuine, but could be a rationalisation after the event.
Once the aim has been identified, it must be shown to be legitimate in the particular circumstances of the employment concerned. An employer cannot just rely on a general aim which is not relevant to its own business.
Tribunals have suggested that the following examples were legitimate aims:
- "dignity": avoiding the need to confront older under-performing staff;
- ensuring a ‘reasonable flow’ of new judicial appointments;
- ensuring the availability of career progression opportunities; or
- creating a balanced workforce, promoting the recruitment of younger workers, and avoiding disputes over older workers' fitness to work.
A retirement age must be proportionate. Proportionality involves balancing the importance of the legitimate aim pursued and the extent of the discriminatory effect. Making a retirement age proportionate might involve setting different retirement ages for different groups of employees.
Broadway Removers has a retirement age of 65 for its removers on the basis that their strength and stamina will decline after this age, they will become less able to do their job and have an increased risk of injury.
- This policy is unlikely to be justified under the Act. Broadway Remover’s concerns could easily be addressed in a less discriminatory way by subjecting its removers to regular fitness tests (though see below for the problems which fitness test requirements could bring).
- Bean Counters R Us, an accountancy firm, has a retirement age of 65 in its partnership deed. Albert is forced to retire on his 65th birthday and brings an age discrimination claim. Bean Counters R Us must justify the retirement age. Bean Counters R Us may argue that their legitimate aim is ensuring the availability of career progression opportunities for associates to become partners. However, if few partners actually remain to retirement age and the firm is unable to show how it plans for the number of partners, it is unlikely to succeed in showing that the discriminatory impact was justified.
Indirectly discriminatory dismissals
If employees are dismissed because of their age, they have a direct age discrimination claim. However, an employee might also have an indirect discrimination claim if a provision, criterion or practice was applied in the dismissal decision which disproportionately disadvantaged his or her age group and cannot be objectively justified by the employer.
- Paxford Ltd is making several of its drivers redundant and is selecting on the basis of ‘last in, first out’ (‘LIFO’). Aled, who is 28 years old, is selected as he only joined a couple of years ago. He believes that selecting the drivers who are the most recent joiners unfairly discriminates against younger workers, arguing it would have been fairer to use other criteria such as absences, punctuality, disciplinary record etc. This may well be found to constitute unlawful indirect discrimination. Paxford may struggle to justify its selection criterion as there would seem to be other less discriminatory ways of selecting fairly. It might be that LIFO could be used with more confidence as one of several criteria, or as a 'tie-break' if drivers scored equally on other criteria.
Indirectly discriminatory dismissals could also arise in the area of performance, if competencies were being required which older workers would find greater difficulty in satisfying.
- Broadway Removers has now introduced fitness tests for its removers. One test requires removers to be able to carry a 30kg weight up three flights of stairs in a set time. George, who is 60, is unable to pass this test yet he has been performing his job for the past 20 years without difficulty. He argues that the test is unrealistically onerous (as the job does not require lifting of such heavy weights) and only younger employees could comply with it. George might well succeed with his claim as it is unlikely that the company could justify the test. However, he would still have to show that the over 60s were less able to satisfy the test than younger workers. Expert medical evidence would probably be needed to establish that.
Disputed reasons for dismissal
Claims can arise where redundancy or performance has been given as the reason for dismissal but the employee believes that his or her age was a factor. These will be direct discrimination claims.
UK employment tribunals can draw inferences of discrimination from a variety of factors including an organisation's general approach to equal opportunities. Once the inference is drawn, the burden passes to the employer to prove that it did not discriminate. Performance management, particularly at a senior level, is often poor leaving many employers vulnerable to age discrimination claims.
- Gold Emblem Financial Services has been performing reasonably well. Its profits have been increasing but the parent company Gold Emblem Inc. believes that it needs 'fresh blood' to take it to its next level. It therefore dismisses Rupert, the 56 year old managing director and replaces him with Hank, who is 38. It dispenses with any process as it believes this would be pointless once the decision has been made and wants Rupert out of the company as soon as he is told. It is happy to pay him £60,000 in respect of his six months' notice pay and another £60,000 to satisfy any unfair dismissal claim. Rupert brings an age discrimination claim for over £1 million, asserting that at his age he will not be able to find another job. Rupert is able to persuade an employment tribunal to draw inferences of discrimination as the company has never undertaken any equal opportunities training, has a diversity policy but has never communicated it and has no records of the age profile of its employees. Gold Emblem must now prove that the reason for dismissal was performance. It faces an uphill struggle as Rupert's last appraisal (four years ago) was very positive, he has a letter from the chairman praising his performance and recently received a decent bonus. He has received no warnings and is able to produce an email in which the HR director refers to the need for 'new blood' and a fresh outlook.
Avoiding age discrimination - main points
- Retirement - Setting a retirement age is unlawful unless it can be objectively justified (which may be difficult depending upon the circumstances).
- Managing performance - Beware the 'pale stale male' and ensure that the performance of all workers, whatever age and however senior, is managed in a transparent, consistent and well-documented way.
- Recruitment - Avoid indirectly discriminatory criteria or language in job and person specs.
- Graduate recruitment - Seeking or favouring recent graduates or relying exclusively on the 'milk round' is likely to discriminate against older candidates. Make sure your policies and processes avoid this.
- Benefits - Review your insured benefits and pension schemes to ensure they comply with the law and assess any increased costs of including older workers.
- Service-related benefits - Despite indirectly discriminating against younger workers, service-related benefits can be lawful. Check yours fall within one of the exceptions.
- Insured benefits – Stopping the provision of insured benefits when an employee reaches 65 is lawful, but it may not be lawful to continue them and stop them at an older age, e.g. 70.
- Redundancy - Enhanced schemes can only take age into account in a limited way. Check yours complies.
- Overseas employees - The Act applies to workers operating outside Britain. Be sure you know who is covered.
- Training - Make sure that equal opportunities training covers ageism - and that recruiters and performance managers know the rules