New legislation on age discrimination, due to come into force in October 2006, has been described as the most significant since sex discrimination rules were introduced, and there is a real possibility that it will open the floodgates for employment tribunals.
IT is often characterised as an industry populated by younger employees. True or not, the new rules on age discrimination will require a radical shift in attitude among IT professionals.
Under the regulations, companies will not be able to specify the required age for a job or restrict access to training opportunities for employees on grounds of age. With the pace of change in IT so rapid, will businesses readily accept the fact that they must continue to invest in training and development for employees who are close to retirement age?
Furthermore, the legislation will mean employers cannot set a retirement age without objective justification, and for so-called "young" industries this will mean a significant culture shift. The government is now seeking views on whether employers should be able to set mandatory retirement ages in some circumstances.
These proposals have been largely driven by the desire to protect older workers from discrimination. However, the legislation is about age diversity and will protect all workers, young and old, from discrimination. A company could not advertise for a "young and dynamic individual", but it would also be discriminating against a younger person if it asked for a certain number of years of experience without a solid business reason.
IT directors will have to work with their human resources departments to ensure the anti-discrimination message is transmitted throughout the organisation. This will not be easy. Despite investment in diversity programmes, changing the attitude of every member of staff has proved very difficult. Many of the big sex discrimination cases in recent years have been caused by careless comments, often in organisations that take their equal opportunities policy seriously.
Prejudice still lingers in the workplace and these attitudes will take time, as well as legislation, to really change.
Audrey Williams is employment law partner at Eversheds
This was first published in October 2003