Employers must tackle age discrimination now to avoid losing talented IT employees

Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, who is perhaps the best known IT worker on the planet, celebrated his 50th birthday last month, and it is worth contrasting his fortunes and prospects with those of other people working in IT.

Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, who is perhaps the best known IT worker on the planet, celebrated his 50th birthday last month, and it is worth contrasting his fortunes and prospects with those of other people working in IT.

This is timely, not just because of this key event in the life of a high-profile IT personality, but from October 2006 it will be unlawful in the UK to treat people less favourably on the grounds of age.

The IT sector has a youthful image; indeed, more than 80% of IT workers in the UK are under 45. However, the sector has a reputation for ageism and is often perceived as dealing unkindly or unfairly with older workers.

To find out more, we at Amicus decided to survey a sample of our members working for IT companies. Amicus is the largest union representing UKIT professionals.

Our research revealed that age discrimination is a problem for both young and older IT workers. Some 71% of respondents believed their employer treats people less favourably because of age.

Recruitment and redundancy selection were the two areas in which most people felt discrimination existed (39% and 37% respectively), closely followed by pay (33%), promotion (33%) and training (29%).

According to the survey, 33% of respondents had been put off applying for a job because of the wording on job advertisements. Words cited by respondents such as "young", "dynamic", "funky", "suit graduate" were felt to be used to put older workers off. 

At the same time, young workers replying to the survey also felt they were discriminated against for being too young. One young worker replied that he was treated like a child and not taken seriously by management. Another felt he was passed over for promotion, and was told his lower pay was justified because of being younger and having fewer responsibilities than older people doing the same job.

The survey also revealed that the blame for age discrimination was placed firmly at the door of senior management. Some 79% of those who believe older people are treated unfairly said they held senior management responsible, compared with 56% who blamed line management.

Amicus wants to start talks with employers to tackle the issue of ageism before the Equal Treatment at Work Directive is enacted in October 2006. Employers are to be invited to sit down with the union and review all employment policies to ensure they do not discriminate on the grounds of age.

In particular, we are advocating that employers review all recruitment, selection, promotion and training procedures, implement a comprehensive training programme for line managers, and ensure there is no levelling down of any benefits, to avoid challenges under the directive.

Companies are going to have to get their house in order. Talent and experience is being lost because of managers' stereotypical views - such as younger workers may be unreliable, or older workers may find it difficult to gain new skills.

By giving employers the chance to change what may become unfair practices ahead of the age discrimination legislation coming into effect, we can avoid resorting to legal challenges and work with willing employers to ensure the sector embraces opportunity for all.

Peter Skyte is national officer at IT workers' union Amicus

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