All About Age: Recruitment - judge the skills, not the birthday

18 November 2014

People who get a new job often experience a mixture of ... elation, excitement, pride and the "I can't believe I got it!" feeling. There are drinks and celebrations with friends but fast dissipating headaches the next day, and the realisation of an exciting but potentially daunting new workplace starts to dawn.

Finding a new job can be a difficult, lengthy and emotional process. From meticulously composing your C.V, to filling out endless application forms and attending gruelling "Apprentice" style interviews, the experience can be as frustrating as it can be ultimately rewarding.

A number of factors can determine success in the job market. The obvious ones that come to mind are experience, qualifications and personal attributes. But what about an applicant's age? What issues do workers of different ages face when trying to enter the workforce?

Job adverts: 'Older workers need not apply'

Earlier this year a Nottingham-based Korean restaurant was forced to apologise after asking for only young women to apply for its waitressing vacancies. They posted job ads on the internet and through social media looking for "girls only, aged 20 to 35".

Kate Nowicki from the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) was critical of the ads and reminded both employers and employees that "the law on age discrimination has been in place since 2006, and employers need to justify why they are setting age limits to avoid being unlawful".

This advert was a fairly clear example of direct age discrimination. However, are there more subtle examples of age discrimination within job ads? Ros Altmann, the Coalition's business champion for older workers, believes employers should be barred from advertising jobs for "recent graduates", because the term is a 'euphemism' for younger employees and so discriminates against the over-50s.

The term is commonly used and unsurprisingly features heavily in ads for graduate jobs. Hundreds of job ads on the Government's own Jobmatch website ask for "recent graduates" to apply. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said they believed the phrase was not discriminatory against older jobseekers. However, Ms Altmann disagreed, branding the term ageist and she found it "surprising that terms or job adverts that seem specifically to rule out over-50s or older workers of any age are broadcast on a Government website".

Ms Altmann said that "the vast majority of recent graduates are obviously going to be young ... but my suspicion would be that even if people like that applied they wouldn't get the job if there is this overriding expression of the need for young people". Age discrimination may be present in job ads despite the best efforts and intentions of the employer, so employers should be careful when drafting ads so as not to fall foul of age discrimination law.

C.Vs and applications: Judge the skills, not the birthday

In the context of C.Vs and applications, it is difficult to gauge whether employers are consciously or sub-consciously biased on the grounds of age.

Lisa Johnson Mandell, author of "Career Comeback - Repackage Yourself to Get the Job You Want", lost her job at the age of 49 and was struggling to find new employment. However, once she made her C.V age anonymous she "got responses to resumes within 20 minutes of sending them out and job offers within two weeks". Maybe others will follow suit and "botox their C.V" for fear that employers are reluctant to employ older workers.

Can parallels be drawn here with other forms of discrimination like race? A Government sting operation in 2009 sent 3,000 job applications under false identities and found that the applicant who appeared to be white British sent nine applications before receiving a positive response of either an invitation to an interview or an encouraging telephone call. Minority candidates with the same qualifications and experience had to send 16 applications before receiving a similar response. Watch this space for a similar study to be conducted with age as a focus. And remember that in the interview process itself, asking age-related questions is a risky business.

The Young Ones: A vicious circle?

What about young aspiring workers? While the Government published its "Fuller Working Lives - A Framework for Action" document, outlining the benefits of older workers and how people can be helped to have fuller working lives, are younger people being neglected in the "age-old" debate of tackling unemployment.

Earlier this year the Mckinsey report on "Tackling Youth Unemployment" highlighted that more than half of young people without jobs simply cannot find one, while businesses across Europe say they are struggling to find young people with the skills and experience they need.

88% of British business leaders feel that school leavers are unprepared for work, while 54% believe graduates are equally unprepared. This is according to a survey conducted by the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), who polled 2,885 British companies. However, while the companies cited a lack of experience and relevant skills as the reason young people were not prepared for work, a staggering 52% of the companies surveyed currently offer no form of work experience.

Business leaders are concerned that young people lack workplace readiness. While some companies have been open in launching 'youth employment/training programmes', many businesses are not providing young people with the necessary work experience opportunities to develop this "work readiness".

With the debate on older workers increasing, it needs to be remembered that The Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination on the grounds of any age unless it can be objectively justified (be a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim).

Employers should be aware that "qualification and experience" requirements within a job ad may have the effect of disadvantaging younger applicants and be potentially discriminatory if they cannot be objectively justified. The skills and level of experience managers say they need for a job, and the language used to reflect those skills, should be tested by legal and HR teams. Doing this, and being mindful of the risk areas connected to age bias during the entire recruitment process, will protect employers from potential claims and, just as importantly, being the focus of any adverse publicity that is likely to increasingly target this area.

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First published on Thomson Reuters Accelus on November 10, 2014.


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