Ageism in the workplace can refer to any form of discrimination or unfair treatment that happens based on age. 36% of adults in the UK say they’ve experienced discrimination at work, CIPHR report. The most common form is age-based discrimination, with 11% of employees across the UK saying they’ve experienced ageism in the workplace. A recent poll also found that one in three UK workers feel they’ve been forced to retire because of age-based discrimination.

If your organisation takes diversity, equity and inclusion seriously, tackling ageism should be a major priority.

According to Age UK, ‘Ageism, also called age discrimination, is when someone treats you unfairly because of your age.’ Age UK gives several examples that focus on discrimination against older people, but in truth, ageism is broader than this. As the World Health Organization put it, ‘ageism affects everyone’.

WHO research finds half the world’s population is ageist against older people, but younger people report more age discrimination than any other age group. The common ‘reverse ageism’ against millennial workers is a great example.

In this article, we’ll look at some ways ageism might manifest at work and, critically, how to address the problem and build an inclusive culture. 

(And if you need any further incentive, a recent report by the OECD found that age-diverse workforces could raise GDP per capita by almost 19% over the next three decades.)

Examples of ageism in the workplace

Perhaps the most common mental image of ageism is an older employee being skipped over for promotion or pushed into retirement because of their age. But ageism can be much more insidious than this.

In their guidance,Age discrimination: Key points for the workplace’, Acas outline the four types of discrimination that fall under the Equalities Act:

  • Direct discrimination, like an employee being passed over for promotion or made redundant because of their age. Direct discrimination can be ordinary (based on their actual age), by association (based on the age of someone they’re associated with), or by perception (based on the age they’re thought to be).
  • Indirect discrimination, like offering a training course only for graduates and not for older employees. Indirect discrimination is normally unintended and results when a process or practice puts an employee at a disadvantage because of their age.
  • Harassment, like colleagues making jokes about an employee’s age or age group. Harassment can include: ‘bullying, nicknames, threats, intrusive or inappropriate questions and comments, excluding them (ignoring, not inviting them to meetings or events) or insults’.
  • Victimisation, like cancelling an employee’s promotion because they complained about colleagues harassing them. Victimisation at work is when an employee suffers harm because they raised a grievance or supported a complaint about ageist discrimination.

Getting a handle on ageism across your workforce is further complicated because there are instances where different treatment based on age may be allowed. For example, a highly physical role might allow you to specify that employees are aged between 18 and 60.

As you’d expect, the law around discrimination in the UK is complex and nuanced, so organisations should seek legal advice to ensure processes and policies are lawful.

Let’s look at some of the broad factors that organisations could consider when exploring how to deal with ageism in the workplace.

Tackling individual and systematic ageism 

Ageism can happen on multiple levels:

Individual ageism can arise from individual employees’ negative perceptions or stereotypes about certain ages. For example, if one particular leader avoids promoting millennials due to discriminatory stereotypical beliefs about millennials.

Systemic ageism, on the other hand, refers to discrimination that arises from your processes, practices and organisational culture. As the Council of Europe define it:

‘Systemic discrimination [also called structural discrimination, institutional discrimination and systematic discrimination] involves the procedures, routines and organisational culture of any organisation that, often without intent, contribute to less favourable outcomes for minority groups.’

Considering both types of discrimination is important in tackling ageism. 

Reviewing your people policies and practices

Ageism can manifest through discriminatory policies and practices throughout the employment lifecycle. Some focus areas to consider are:

  • recruitment
  • learning and development
  • compensation
  • performance management
  • promotion
  • dismissal/redundancy
  • flexible working

There are specifics and subtleties within each HR discipline, so organisations should seek legal advice to undertake a full review. The aim here is to equip leaders within each discipline to ensure their talent processes are fair and inclusive, and to ensure stereotypes and bias aren’t creeping in.

Take recruitment as an example

  • Do your talent teams understand how to write unbiased job descriptions and advertise across broad channels, to capture a wide audience?
  • Do managers understand how to accurately assess the skills a role needs, to allow recruiters to accurately source the right people?
  • Are your interviewers briefed to avoid potentially ageist language and discriminatory questions?

These questions of course aren’t exhaustive – there are many places where discrimination can leach into your processes. Age-based discrimination can often be innocuous. For example:

  • Using pictures of exclusively young people in adverts or on your careers site
  • Using language that can imply age (like ‘energetic’)
  • Specifying experience as a time-based condition (like ‘ten years’ experience’)
  • Comments during unscripted interviews (like ‘you’re overqualified’)
  • Specifying a qualification that’s more common at certain ages (like the landmark Games vs University of Kent ruling that claimed a PhD requirement was indirect age-based discrimination).

Tackling ageism at work means taking a granular look at your organisation and evaluating how every practice and process impacts people. Ensuring unconscious bias training is more than a tick-box activity is also important to upskill inclusion awareness across your business. 

Providing the right employee support

Different employees have different support needs at different times in their lives. Not providing that support can also be a form of discrimination.

One important example is menopause. Regarding menopause and the law, Acas say:

‘The menopause is not a specific protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. But if an employee or worker is put at a disadvantage and treated less favourably because of their menopause symptoms, this could be discrimination if related to a protected characteristic’.

The International Federation of Gynaecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) report that ‘silence, shame, discrimination and stigma relating to ageing and the menopause are highly prevalent’.

Dr Hema Divakar, Chair of FIGO’s Committee on Well Woman Health and Care, says discrimination against mature and menopausal women is common but often goes unnoticed:

‘The overriding message for older workers seems to be that mature age is a one-way ticket to certain decline. There can be mental health impacts that result from being marginalised and/or locked out of paid employment opportunities. Menopausal women are stereotyped as "experienced" but "high risk and inefficient"’. 

Supporting your employees through menopause can be an important part of tackling ageism. For instance, that might mean providing educational resources, management training, and encouraging open discourse.

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Age-based discrimination is the most common form of discrimination most of your employees face today, whether that’s older people experiencing stress and shame about menopause or millennials battling unfair stereotypes about their work ethic.  

Getting a handle on ageism in the workplace is instrumental to creating an inclusive culture that better empowers different employees to thrive.