Impacts of age in the workplace

13th November 2019

This article was written by Michael Howard who was head of diversity at Middlesex University and was a Marshall E-Learning client for many years. Michael now runs his own consultancy and works closely with us on content development, training consultancy, coaching and advising on updates to modules. This month Michael looks at ageism in the workplace. Have a question for Michael? Contact us through the site and we will ensure it gets to him.

Age is one aspect of our identity and one of the protected characteristics under UK equality legislation, but it is also universal, everybody has an age, and it’s not static. It is implicit in our life, but it’s something that changes constantly. Age impacts on how we are perceived and how we look at others and can to varying extents govern our attitudes and behaviours.

Compensation for age discrimination and harassment is uncapped, so technically there is no limit to the amount of money an employment tribunal can award a successful claimant. The demographics of the workplace are changing with up to a third of people in work are aged over 50, no general retirement age and falling numbers of younger people organisations simply can’t ignore age as an issue.

This article looks at various aspects of age in the workplace in the context of equality, diversity and inclusion. It raises a cross-section of issues and potential ways forward in addressing the problems that can occur concerning age in the workplace. A work environment that values, respects and utilises the efforts of all employees regardless of their age will be well on the way to being a successful organisation. The starting point for organisations should be consideration of how inclusive they are and what they can do to become more inclusive.

Inclusive organisations

Inclusive organisations aim to have a diverse workforce that values the perspectives and contributions of everyone. Treating employees differently because of their age could lead to unfair age discrimination dependent on the circumstances. An employer can make a decision based on someone’s age if they can show that it is objectively justified and proportionate. When looking at age in the workplace, it is not just about older employees. The law covers everyone of working age though impacts tend to be greater on older employees.

Older employees suffer most cases of unfair discrimination, particularly for people in their 50s, but this doesn’t mean that other age groups don’t encounter unfair age discrimination. Consequently, organisations need to ensure that all employees are included, without any unnecessary barriers based on their age. Although recourse for unfair discrimination on the grounds of age has been around for some time, there is still a general acceptance that ageist language, the perpetuation of age stereotypes and differential treatment are not as bad as other bases for unfair discrimination, bullying or harassment.

Inclusive organisations must treat all areas of equality and diversity equally even though there may be, at particular times, the need for prioritisation to deal with specific issues.

One of our courses may be of interest, find out more here; Becoming an inclusive organisation

What’s the evidence?

A report, commissioned by SunLife and published in August 2019 found that more than a third of British people have discriminated against others because of their age. The report, titled Ageist Britain, surveyed 4000 people and analysed thousands of tweets and blog posts. It revealed that 40% of British people over 50 regularly experience ageism, with almost one in three experiencing it at work. In this article, we explore practical ways of combatting ageism in the workplace.

Find out more about legislation and human rights relating to age at the Age UK website.

Risks of stereotyping people because of age

Age stereotyping, making assumptions about people, including job applicants, employees’ capabilities, career ambitions and behaviours because of their age is problematic, potentially being the root of unfair age discrimination.

Stereotyping could lead to:

  • poor decision-making when recruiting and promoting or deciding who gets access to training;
  • de-motivation of employees who are aware of the stereotyping; and
  • declining trust among colleagues
  • could lead to unfair discrimination claims.

These are some ways to avoid age stereotyping:

  • Basing assessment on the actuality of job performance or quality of job applications not using assumptions because of their age
  • Where possible having different age groups in a team or project because shared aims and goals can bring people together
  • Encouraging different age groups to swap ideas, knowledge and skills to build cohesion and commonality.

Risks of using ageist language

Derogatory and abusive terms and comments about an employee or job applicant because of age are not conducive to an inclusive workplace; in fact, they build barriers. Examples might include a younger employee telling an older colleague they are “an old fart” or “over the hill”, or an older employee saying to a young colleague, “you poor little snowflake” or “you’re wet behind the ears”.

It is important to acknowledge that it is how the recipient perceives the words that matter more than the intention of the person in saying them.

Age in the workplace

The role of employee development and learning

Training plays a big part in helping to change behaviours and attitudes providing by an understanding of issues, highlighting what is acceptable or not, building an inclusive culture and equipping people to work together effectively. Equality, diversity and inclusion programmes provide a foundation for growing effective organisations that provide opportunities for all employees to maximise their potential.

Employee development should begin with induction and continue throughout an employee’s tenure at the organisation, which can help to create workplaces where people feel comfortable, realise their fullest potential, produce desired outcomes and collaborate.

Appropriate learning opportunities should be available to all employees; this should cover not only formal training but also include other development opportunities where linked to the role of the individual in the organisation.

The development of an inclusive organisation requires more than a single training course as knowledge, skills and awareness need to be nurtured across all aspects of work. A blended topic approach that covers, areas such as,  unconscious bias, harassment and bullying, communications, inclusive management and leadership, inclusive recruitment and any other related learning can deliver greater benefits.

An efficient and practical approach to development training across all employees could be to provide a suite of e-learning programmes. This approach should include general courses on equality, diversity and inclusion and more targetted courses on specific subjects for particular employees.

View our full range of e-learning courses to find out more.

Clear, effective and robust policies are important

Policies covering equality, diversity and inclusion should encompass all aspects of work-life and where appropriate, explain different types of unfair discrimination. There should be a clear explanation of what employees are expected to do and the reporting processes that enable people to raise grievances. Employees should have ready access to information about what happens when an issue occurs.

There should be clear communications that reinforce the organisation’s approach to equality, diversity and inclusion, which should be promulgated regularly to all employers and other stakeholders outside the organisation such as customers and contractors.

Policy documents should be reviewed and updated regularly to ensure they remain useful, relevant and compliant with legislation. The review and evaluation process should include the impacts across all aspects of equality, diversity and inclusion to ensure that no one is excluded and that policies and processes are working correctly.

Leadership by example is key

What we do as leaders has a big impact on setting the accepted behaviours and attitudes for others at work. Actions really do speak louder than words, and although we are all responsible for creating an inclusive culture at work, leaders have a key role to play.

We should all be responsible for delivering and promoting inclusion and diversity. However, leaders in organisations are in a pivotal position as what they do, what they say, and what they think set the direction an organisation takes. The ‘tone from the top’ must lead the way, with all management adopting, and displaying an understanding of the equality, diversity and inclusion agenda.

Find out more about inclusive leadership and managers’ toolkit with a blended approach to development.


The benefits of a healthy workforce across all age ranges has been well-documented. However, it is vital to have both a generic and targetted approach that provides the best support for employers at different ages in their working life.

Dr Martin Boult, Senior Director Professional Services & International Training, The Myers-Briggs Company published a new report, titled “Well-being in the Workplace” recently.

An international study tells us that people aged 65 and over reported the highest levels of overall wellbeing – an average of 8.14 out of 10. Conversely, those aged 18 to 24 reported the lowest levels of wellbeing, at 6.77 out of 10.

Workplace well-being is related to organisational outcomes. Higher levels of workplace well-being correlated with:

  • Higher levels of job satisfaction
  • Higher commitment to the organisation
  • Citizenship behaviours such as an increased discretionary effort to help co-workers and contributing to organisational objectives
  • Employees were less likely to have plans to look for a new job

As Sherrie Haynie, Director of US Professional Services for The Myers-Briggs Company, recently described in Forbes, happiness and profit are synergistic. Employees interested in their tasks have higher well-being. Participants rated the most effective activities in order of importance as:

  1. Focusing on work tasks that interest me
  2. Focusing on a work task that makes me feel positive
  3. Undertaking work where I learn something new
  4. Taking breaks at work when needed
  5. Undertaking challenging work that adds to my skills and knowledge

“Research shows up to 80% of people in large companies aren’t engaged at work. This means huge losses in productivity,” said Boult. “Improving employee well-being is crucial for improving engagement. The biggest lever you can pull to get started is fostering more productive workplace relationships.”

Midlife support

Midlife support at work is an employee benefit that can contribute to a strong employer brand and the recruitment and retention of employees. Mid-life support encourages engagement and inclusion, enabling people to plan their on-going careers better. In turn, employers can hold on to their skills and experiences, deploy staff effectively and benefit from age-diverse workforces.

In August 2019, The Centre for Aging Better published a report called Mid-life Support: Insight for Employers. The report covers a wide range of issues, highlighting that the provision of mid-life support should be an integral part of being an age-friendly employer, which involves improving workplace practices to help people remain in work as long as they want.

Some key lessons for employers providing mid-life support emerged from pilots conducted by Aviva, Legal & General, the Money and Pensions Service and Mercer:

  • Know your target audience – consider the purpose and intended outcomes.
  • ‘Age’ is not a fixed concept – consider the age the service is targeting.
  • There is no ‘one size fits all’ for delivery – whether by telephone consultations, face-to-face, group sessions or online tools, consider what format is most applicable and effective for the intended participant group.
  • Keep the content focused – MOTs can’t cover everything, prioritisation in content is essential to maintain focus, clarity of purpose and participant engagement.
  • The mid-life MOT is a process, nota one-off event – practical outputs, signposting and follow-ups are required to engage and benefit participants.

Access the full report at Centre for Aging Better

Effective use of technology

Having accessible and easily understood technology supports all employees. Technology can be an enhancer or barrier it is better to have the right things in place rather than just adopting the latest trends. If employees don’t use the technology available or use it in an inefficient way

Consider opting for platforms and programs that don’t consist of too many features or that have complicated layouts and make sure there is a facility for increasing the font size or changing the colour scheme. Always be aware that there may be other physical limitations that aren’t immediately obvious and broach any questions regarding this with sensitivity and a willingness to problem-solve.

Be inclusive in your recruitment processes

Opportunities for recruitment and promotion should be available for people of all ages, and this approach needs to be evident during every step of the process. From the language and images used in advertising to the job description, application forms, interview questions and selection process, make sure your recruitment processes reflect the inclusive nature of your business, and that you are 100% compliant.

Find out more about inclusive recruitment.

In conclusion

Ageism and any form of unfair discrimination is not acceptable in the workplace. Everyone should feel able, supported and confident to raise concerns regarding unacceptable behaviour.

Build inclusion, not exclusion

Encourage staff members to embrace difference

Unfair discrimination can be due to lack of awareness, bias or a lack of challenge to entrenched stereotypes.

Encourage older and younger employees to be confident in their abilities, knowledge and skills and to share them with others. This approach should empower employees to challenge stereotypes and gently re-educate misinformed colleagues. Also encourage them to invest time in updating their skills, as you would with any team member, and to talk with pride about their experiences and achievements in the workplace.

We hope this paper enables the wider discussion of the impacts of age at work and provides some practical ideas for aspects of how age is an essential issue at work.

For more information, please contact us to find out how our specialist e-learning training courses can help your organisation.

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