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Retired workers returning to the workforce - beware age discrimination in the workplace

Retired workers returning to the workforce - beware age discrimination in the workplace

Phil Steventon


Reading time: five minutes

Retirement, as we know it, is changing. Partly because of advancements in healthcare and humans living longer, but also because of economic necessity, especially as we’re experiencing a fall in real-terms income and the subsequent cost of living crisis. Because of this, we may see more older people and retirees re-enter the workforce.

In the UK, 66% of 2020 retirees expect to continue working in some form as living costs skyrocket, 32% of 2021 retirees plan to join the ‘gig economy’ to supplement their pensions, and 24% of 2022 retirees plan to go part time in their current or a new role.

So, with more and more older people remaining in or returning to the workforce, and with a lot of the workforce now comprising of millennials and members of Gen Z, it’s important that policies and employees are up to date around age discrimination.

What do we mean by this?

Age discrimination is the unfair or prejudicial treatment of people on the grounds of age, a protected characteristic.

Discrimination can be several things:

  • Direct – where a person is treated less favourably because of a protected characteristic, such as not being offered training, a role or a promotion that younger colleagues are being offered.
  • Indirect – where a provision or practice applies equally to all employees but people with a particular protected characteristic are disadvantaged compared to others and isn’t a “proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”, such as only hiring or promoting employees with degrees that older workers may not have as they may not have gone to university.
  • Harassment – unwanted conduct or behaviour such as exclusion from social events, inappropriate or personal jokes or comments or messages, or inappropriate assumptions of competence or understanding due to a protected characteristic such as age. This can be prolonged or a sufficiently serious one-off incident.
  • Victimisation – where an employee is treated unfairly by their employer if they have or are believed to have committed a ‘protected act’. This is when somebody makes a claim or complaint of discrimination. It can take the form of helping another person to make a claim by giving evidence or information or alleging that they or somebody else has breached the Equality Act.

Unless there's an operational requirement, where the requirement for a particular protected characteristic is necessary for the employer to pursue a legitimate aim, discrimination is unlawful and highly impactful to the victim.

What must employers do?

It’s obvious that prevention is better than cure – like pulling a weed out before it has a chance to choke the other plants – because once the discrimination has happened, an employer will have to deal with the consequences.

The employee will have been seriously impacted by the offending act, and the employer will have to do damage control to address the offender and the offending act along with support the affected employee, possibly even defend itself against a grievance or claim from the affected employee. And no one wants to go through a stressful and lengthy disciplinary process or an expensive tribunal!

Employers can help prevent discrimination in the workplace by taking meaningful and practical steps:

  • Having an up-to-date equality policy – to reassure staff that they will be treated with respect and dignity, what is expected of them, and what is not acceptable. Having an up-to-date equality policy – to reassure staff that they’ll be treated with respect and dignity, and to remind them what’s expected of them, and what isn’t acceptable. 
  • Providing regular anti-discrimination training to all staff – to ensure everyone knows what’s unacceptable.
  • Giving clear guidance to staff, such as in a policy or procedure document explaining how they can complain if discrimination happens.
  • Regular catchups between employees and supervisors to help build positive working relationships.

The goal here is to ensure all employees are treated fairly and with dignity and respect. If the workplace promotes psychological safety for all staff, then the employer is less likely to be held responsible for discrimination undertaken by them or by any member of staff. If the workplace promotes psychological safety for all staff, then the employer is less likely to be held responsible for discrimination undertaken by them or by any member of staff.

If employees don’t feel included, or if they feel the workplace’s or company’s culture or values don’t align with theirs, then they might leave. This would mean that the employer would have to recruit again, which costs time, effort and money, arguably more than an employer would have spent to ensure an inclusive and welcoming workplace to begin with.

Why does this matter?

Simply because it makes sense. From a legal, business, and moral standpoint.

Older people represent a large part of the buyer market, so older employees may find it easier to connect with the people the employer is targeting as clients or partners.

Older employees can tap into many years of personal and professional experience that can be highly valuable to both an employer and colleagues. This is pretty obvious if they have been working or have gained business knowledge over many years, if not decades, so it’s a very valuable asset.

Younger employees can learn a lot from their older colleagues’ life and work experiences, especially useful skill sets and business knowledge. And in return, younger workers can tool older workers with tech skills for the modern workplace at no cost to the employer.

Mature employees tend to be more reliable, as they’re often less likely to change careers, which saves the employer time and money on recruitment. In general, they’re mature and professional with a strong work ethic, and work hard to produce high-quality results.

Confidence too comes because of experience, and as we get older, we become more comfortable with who we are and what we want to achieve. So a combination of confidence and experience from more mature employees can go goes a long way in a workplace! This can rub off on younger colleagues as older employees can help their younger colleagues build that confidence and experience through osmosis and from learning from them.

Having a diverse and welcoming workplace reflects well on the company’s brand, and so will likely mean the company’s client base grows and existing clients are retained.