Business Essentials: 'You can be ageist and not know it. How do we avoid breaking the law?'

New discrimination rules have a lot of grey areas, and a recruitment consultant is worried about its job ads
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The Independent Online

After 1 October this year, any job advertisement suggesting that someone of a particular age would be well suited to the post will be breaking the law. Under the new Employment Equality (Age) Regulations, all areas of the employment cycle - recruitment, training and development, promotion, redundancy and retirement - must be completely age-neutral. For Hewitson Walker, a financial recruitment consultancy, that's a concern.

"It's not that we don't support the legislation," insists operations manager Mark Channon. "We have always believed age should be irrelevant in the recruitment process."

Rather, he is anxious about how both his team of advertising copywriters and his clients will adapt to the new law. "The first problem is that while I have a team of individuals who are very competent at writing ads, they are not professionals in legal issues," he explains. "It will be easy to teach them no longer to put ages in their ads, but what if some covert discrimination creeps into the copy?

"For example, if you ask for someone 'dynamic' or 'vibrant', it could be seen to be indirectly discriminating against someone older," he adds.

"It doesn't help that the new law is very open to interpretation and that there is a lack of clear guidance from the Government in layman's terms. There are plenty of very long-winded briefs, but not much that your average advertisement writer can understand."

Mr Channon adds that it is also possible, under the legislation, to find yourself unfairly discriminating against young jobseekers. "People think of ageism only affecting older people, but that's not true. If you state on a job ad that you want 'x number of years' experience' or that you want someone 'highly experienced', you are basically saying you'll only take someone over a certain age."

Mr Channon's second area of concern is how to educate his clients, many of whom get involved in the interviewing process. "While I'm sure that a lot of the larger blue-chip companies will be very up to speed with this new legislation, the smaller type [of] organisations that many of our regional offices look after may not have such large resources available to them to inform all of their line managers.

"I want to know how to help them understand that it's no longer OK to insist on two years' experience if it's not essential, and that they shouldn't have in their minds a person of a certain age to do the job."

It's not as if Hewitson Walker - which, over the past year, has expanded out of the City to open offices across the country - has left it to the last minute to bring up the issue of ageism with clients and copywriters. "We have been making everyone aware of the upcoming changes to the law for some time now.

"However, without stringent guidelines from the Government, getting them to fully understand the importance of the issue is an uphill struggle."

www.hewitsonwalker.com

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

Christine Ashdown, Project Manager for the Government's 'Be Ready' National Guidance Campaign

"The new age regulations will force us to challenge many traditional practices that are unintentionally ageist, and Mr Channon is clearly thinking along the right lines in avoiding specifications such as 'bright young thing' or 'mature person'.

"His advert team should focus on the job requirements and the skills needed by the candidate. Additionally, the word 'graduate' could be misinterpreted as young people only; ask for graduates of all ages.

"To prevent discrimination against younger jobseekers, the focus again should be on their knowledge and skills, rather than number of years' experience. Also, check the images used in the adverts to make sure they don't inadvertently imply a preference for a certain age group.

"Good practice is mainly common sense. However, free help is available on 0845 715 2000 or www.agepositive.gov.uk/agepartnershipgroup."

Sam Mercer, Director, Employers Forum on Age

"Mr Channon must keep it simple for his copywriters. Most of the detail of the law will not be relevant, and it is more important that they understand the spirit of the rules and challenge their own preconceptions.

"He should be very clear on how his organisation will approach the new laws, providing a checklist of 'dos' and 'don'ts'. Keep giving the message, 'it's about ability not age'.

"Mr Channon should also be innovative, using posters, payroll campaigns, meetings or leaflets. The EFA has developed interactive questionnaires, multiple-choice questions and games to bring the subject alive.

"With clients, it is just as important to keep it simple. He should send out a statement detailing his approach to complying with the legislation, and adopt a policy of zero tolerance to clients who ask him to bend the rules."

Tony Bourne, Senior Partner and Head of Employment Unit, Glovers Solicitors

"Mr Channon is correct in his assumption that using the words 'vibrant' or 'dynamic' could be construed as discrimination; it need not be intentional to be unlawful. This could be avoided by having a standard 'candidates of all ages are welcome to apply' strapline added to recruitment ads. This way, even if ambiguous words or phrases do creep in, the ads will always be within the law.

"He could also point out to his clients that age discrimination poses a huge financial risk, as once the law is in force, there will be no cap on compensation.

"Organisations such as Acas offer free guidance on these issues, as well as very reasonably priced training courses."

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