by Philip Landau, employment law solicitor and partner of London Law firm Landau Zeffertt Weir Solicitors LLP
The working population as a whole is getting older. The number of people aged under 50 is set to fall by 2 per cent by 2016, while the number aged between 50 and 69 is set to increase by 17 per cent. Many people are choosing to work longer either because they have to in order to maintain a minimum standard of retirement, or simply because they want to. As a result, The Equality Act 2010 (‘the Act’) came into force on 1st October 2010 and maintains or enhances the existing law on age discrimination in a single piece of clear and simple legislation.
What is age discrimination?
Age discrimination is where you are treated unequally because of your particular age or because you belong to a range of ages (eg ‘40 to 60 year olds’ or ‘over-30s’). Legislation has deemed that age is a ‘protected characteristic’ and, accordingly, age discrimination is unlawful (unless it can be justified). Therefore, the law is designed to protect employees and workers of any age during all aspects of employment.
Who is protected by the Act?
The Act applies to all employees (fixed and indefinite term), job applicants, trainees, contract workers, office holders (including company directors and partners), those who are on secondment and the self-employed. The Act covers all areas of employment including recruitment, selection and promotion, the provision of training, the provision of benefits, retirement and occupational pensions.
The Act does not just apply to older employees, but also younger ones. For example, it will also be unlawful for an employer to impose a lower age limit when recruiting, unless this age restriction can be objectively justified.
A summary of the protection under the Equality Act for age discrimination
Age discrimination can occur in several forms, namely: direct discrimination, indirect discrimination harassment and victimisation. Direct discrimination and harassment have been extended to cover not only discrimination because of your own age but also discrimination as a result of your ‘perceived’ age (whereby the discriminator believes that you are older/younger than you are) or because you ‘associate’ with someone of a certain age.
Note: another form of discrimination known as ‘combined discrimination’, which would prevent direct discrimination against those who have a combination of protected characteristics, is still to be implemented.
This is where you have been, or would be treated less favourably than others because of age, whether it is your age, your perceived age or the age of someone you associate with. For example, if an employer were to promote another employee ahead of you because he/she was younger, you could claim direct age discrimination.
This form of discrimination requires a comparison with colleagues who do not share your age characteristic but are similar in other respects, so that you can demonstrate a particular disadvantage to yourself as a result of being of a different age.
Direct discrimination can be objectively justified by your employer.
Note: it is irrelevant that the person who discriminates against you has the same age. So, for example, if an employer rejects your job application because you are 56, he cannot argue that he is not liable for a discrimination claim because he is also in his 50s.
This is where a practice, provision or criterion (i.e. a rule relating to your employment), implemented by your workplace and which applies equally to all persons, puts you at a disadvantage because of age compared to other employees. It is irrelevant that the discrimination was not intentional. So if your employer only lets employees who have ‘recently graduated’ attend a training course, it is likely that very few older employees will be able to attend. This law also protects those who are deterred from applying for a job because they know that a provision or practice of the workplace would put them at a disadvantage.
As with direct discrimination, it is necessary to compare your situation with other colleagues who don’t share your age.
Indirect discrimination can be objectively justified by your employer.
Age harassment refers to offensive, intimidating or distressing behavior which is based on age and violates your dignity or creates a working environment which is hostile, intimidating or degrading. Common examples might include offensive comments about the natural signs of ageing (wrinkles, baldness etc) or age-related nicknames. This kind of behavior might also include being ignored or being excluded from after-work drinks because of age. Pressure to retire may also amount to age-related harassment.
Just as with direct discrimination, harassment can include age discrimination based on your perceived age or the age of someone you associate with, such as an elderly relative who works with you who is referred to as ‘an old fogey’. Therefore, if you find the behavior offensive, it doesn’t matter that it is not directed at you and that you do not share the protected characteristic. It should also be noted that age harassment can be directed at younger employees who, for example, have a ‘baby face’.
Age harassment doesn’t necessarily have to be directed at an individual or individuals, it can be the general culture of the firm. Examples of this might include the telling and tolerating of ‘ageist’ jokes around the office.
The Act has extended the law on age-related harassment to include third parties ie unwanted conduct from clients, customers or suppliers who are not employees of your company. This means that if your employer is made aware of the situation and fails to take positive steps to prevent third party harassment from occurring on at least three occasions, then he could be liable to you.
This is where you are treated less favourably as a result of you having have made, tried to make, helped someone else to make or assumed to have made, a complaint or grievance of age discrimination under the Act. There is no longer a need to compare your treatment to an employee who has not done one of the above.
How can discrimination be justified?
The law recognises that it is sometimes necessary and justifiable to directly or indirectly discriminate on the basis of age. For this reason, age discrimination is unique amongst the protected characteristics. Therefore, if your employer can show that discriminating against you is a ‘proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim’, then he may be able to successfully argue that this course of action is justified. Fortunately for employees, this is a difficult test for the employer to overcome and he must have no reasonable alternative.
Examples of reasonable justifications might occur where the employer is legally obligated to employ a person of a certain age or where there is a genuine occupational requirement (such as in the selection of cast members because the role requires an actor of a certain age).
What other rights does the Act give?
You are able to make a claim for unfair dismissal beyond the age of 65.
You will continue to have the right to claim unfair dismissal after you have reached your employer’s normal retirement age for your job or, if there isn’t one, the default retirement age of 65.
Therefore, older employees have the same unfair dismissal rights as those of younger employees.
You are able to claim a statutory minimum redundancy payment after the age of 65.
You still have the right to claim the statutory minimum redundancy payment if you are over 65 (or after your normal retirement age if this is lower). Age bands for calculating statutory redundancy payments and basic awards for unfair dismissal will remain unchanged, using a multiplier based on a number of weeks pay, ranging from half a week for younger employees to one and a half weeks for older employees.
You cannot be forced to retire below the age of 65, unless it can be justified. You will have the right to request to work beyond 65.
The default retirement age is 65. If an employer’s normal retirement age is below 65, it will need to be objectively justified.
Employees must be informed of their expected retirement date at least 6 months and no more than 12 months of the planned retirement. At the same time, employees must be advised of their right to request to work longer if they wish to.
An employee’s request to work beyond 65 should be made in writing as soon as practical and where possible, at least 4 weeks before the end of the proposed retirement date. The request can even be made up to 4 weeks beyond termination of the contract of employment, but not after this date. A meeting to discuss the request should be held by the employer within a reasonable period after the employee’s request has been made.
An employee’s request to stay on must be considered using a detailed procedure laid down in the Act . The employer must show it is appropriate and necessary to retire the employee. The fact that you may have reached a certain age is not in itself a good enough reason to retire you.
If an employer does not following the correct retirement procedure, this could result in compensation to the employee of up to 8 weeks’ pay or an automatic unfair dismissal, depending on the extent of the failure.
If, on notification, an employee agrees to retire, there is clearly no need to follow the procedure.
Note: the Government intends to remove the default retirement age of 65 in April 2011 which would make it illegal for an employer to compulsively retire you at any age unless it can be objectively justified.
The Act stops age-discrimination in employment and work-related training.
Employers have to make sure that any redundancy policies do not directly discriminate against older employees. They should also not discriminate indirectly – for example, by selecting only part-time workers for redundancy, when a large number of these may be older workers. Employers will not be able to discriminate in respect of the benefits they provide to employees over 65.
The only exceptions will be where an age requirement can be objectively justified.
Can an employer simply make you redundant at 65 to avoid any liability under the Act?
If the principal reason for the dismissal is redundancy and not because of an employee’s age, then the redundancy will be legal and the employee will be entitled to redundancy pay at age 65 or above as they would at any other age. If the retirement procedure is used to dismiss an employee, and the contract of employment terminates on the intended date of retirement, the reason for dismissal will be retirement and the dismissal will be fair. Remember though that the employer will need to justify the reason for dismissal on retirement grounds.
What steps should you take if you think you have been discriminated against because of age?
If you are an employee and still in employment and you cannot resolve the matter informally with your line manager, then it is best to first lodge an internal grievance. This may be appropriate, for example, where you may have been passed over for promotion, or you have been harassed by reason of your age. Your employer will be obliged to convene a meeting without unreasonable delay to discuss your grievance. You may, however, still be able to bring a claim in the Employment Tribunal while you are still employed.
If you have already been dismissed and you think you have been discriminated against, you can lodge a claim for unfair dismissal and age discrimination at the Employment Tribunal. Any claim should be issued within 3 months of the date of dismissal or alleged discriminatory act.
If you are successful in your claim, compensation can be awarded for financial loss and there will be no ceiling to the amount of damages that you can claim.
You should, if possible, seek detailed professional advice before making a claim against your employer.
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