Older IT professionals will be protected by new safeguards against age-related discrimination by employers from 1 October.
The IT profession has a reputation for focusing on younger workers, with many IT staff complaining that it is harder to find work once they pass the age of 40.
But the Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006, which come into force next month, will ensure employers are no longer able to turn down job applicants simply because of their age. Employers will not legally be able to deny older staff training, pass them over for promotion, or offer less generous terms and conditions.
The new regulations have been welcomed by trade unions, who see them as the last piece in the jigsaw of anti-discrimination laws that already cover sex and race.
"For the first time in the UK, it will enable people to challenge being treated unfairly on the grounds of age," said Amicus national secretary Peter Skyte.
But the regulations also make sense for employers, who will find it increasingly hard to recruit younger workers because demographic shifts mean the average age of the workforce will increase significantly in coming years.
Ben Booth, a member of the BCS Management Forum and global CTO of market research company Ipsos, said the regulations would help employers to help themselves.
"I think IT's reputation for ageism is deserved in some quarters," he said. "I have spoken to recruiters who will not look at people over 50 or over 40 in some circles. But a lot of blue-chip companies are being quite rigorous in bringing themselves in line with the regulations."
Research by Amicus last year suggests there is a strong perception that ageism is rife in the IT profession. Employees said they felt discrimination most when it came to recruitment and redundancy, but they also highlighted pay, promotion and training as issues.
"It was not just older people being discriminated against, but younger people for being too inexperienced," said Skyte. "Older people were put off by words like 'young, dynamic' in job adverts. Younger people were passed over for promotion and offered lower pay."
Amicus's findings are backed up by research from the Chartered Management Institute, which found that 55% of IT professionals surveyed claimed to have suffered age discrimination in job applications, and 38% believed ageism had affected their chances of promotion.
Employers will need to review their employment practices to make sure they do not fall foul of the new regulations, either deliberately or inadvertently, said Owen Warnock, partner at law firm Eversheds.
"Employers should be reviewing their recruitment documentation, job specs and how they assess people to make sure they do not involve direct or indirect age discrimination," he said.
This means employers will need to be careful when asking to recruit people with, for example, 10 years' experience in a particular field, because this could amount to age discrimination. It will become more important to take into account the quality of experience that recruits have had, rather than just the length, said Warnock.
It is important for employers to make it absolutely clear in writing to recruitment agencies that they are not going to discriminate on grounds of age, he stressed.
Amicus is working with employers to help them review their employment and HR policies before the new regulations come in.
"Companies need to review all terms and conditions, particularly matters such as redundancy arrangements and long-service awards," said Skyte. "They should implement a comprehensive training programme for line managers so they understand what is involved."
Warnock said employers would be at risk if they complied with the letter of the law in recruitment advertisements but continued to favour younger IT professionals when it came to employing them.
"Employers can be uncovered if they only show interest in younger candidates," he said. "There is a serious risk of being unmasked."
Warnock advised anyone who believed they had been discriminated against because of their age to consider bringing a tribunal case against the firm concerned.
"It is pretty easy," he said. "Lots of people bring claims themselves using either a solicitor or a trade union representative."
But Booth said IT professionals should go to a tribunal only as a last resort. "People who follow the legal route may win the case, but it probably doesn't help their careers."
From 1 October, it will be unlawful on the grounds of age to:
- Decide not to employ a person
- Dismiss a person
- Refuse to provide training
- Deny promotion
- Give adverse terms and conditions
- Make a person retire before their retirement age, or before 65
- Employees will have the right to request to continue work beyond 65 and employers have a duty to consider the request
- Employers will have to make an objective case if they want to reward employees based on length of service
- Employers must give at least six months' notice to employees of their retirement. This is to give them time to plan and to ensure that retirement is not being used as a cover for unfair dismissal
- There will be no upper age limit for unfair dismissal and redundancy, giving older workers the same rights as younger workers.
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This was first published in September 2006