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Age discrimination

Age discrimination laws help ensure that you are not denied a job, an equal chance of training or a promotion because of your age. 

What is age discrimination at work?

The Equality Act 2010 makes it illegal for an employer to single out an employee, or job seeker, for differential treatment - such as discrimination, harassment or victimisation - on the basis of their age.

If an employer treats someone differently due to their age and they do not have a valid reason for doing so, they are guilty of age discrimination.

What is 'discrimination by association'?

'Discrimination by association' occurs when an employer gives an employee less than preferential treatment, not due to the age of the employee, but rather because of the age of someone they know, such as friends or family members.

For example, an employer is prohibited from granting permission for a flexible working request to a parent with young children whilst simultaneously denying a similar request to an employee caring for an elderly relative.  

Which categories of people are age discrimination laws intended to protect?

Age discrimination laws apply to people who are:

  • in employment
  • applying for a job
  • in need of a reference from a previous employer
  • agency workers.

Age discrimination laws apply irrespective of how long an employee has worked at a company or the number of employees who work there. However, they do not apply to volunteers or members of the armed forces.

What is the practical effect of age discrimination laws on employers?

An employer cannot treat an employee, or job candidate, less favourably than others due to their age unless they have a good business reason for doing so that is unrelated to age.

Equally, an employer cannot - without good reason - force an employee to retire or dismiss them because they have reached a certain age. An employer also cannot adopt rules or policies that indirectly put an employee or job candidate at a disadvantage due to their age.

An employer cannot bully or harass an employee because of their age and they must prevent their colleagues, clients and customers from engaging in this practice in the workplace.

Is it ever legal for an employer to treat an employee or job candidate differently because of their age?

An employer can only treat an employee or job candidate differently on the grounds of their age when they can provide a reasonable business justification for it. Examples include:

  • legal restrictions (for example, bar staff are legally required to be 18 years of age or over in order to serve alcohol, therefore refusing to employ a candidate under 18 is not illegal)
  • occupational requirements (for instance, a young actor may be required to play the role of a teenager in a film)
  • the national minimum wage, which is dependent on age. Under-21s receive less money, which is not against the law
  • redundancy pay, which can be linked to age, is not illegal
  • workplace pension schemes, which are determined by employers. It is not against the law for an employer to set the minimum age at which an employee can draw their pension.

What can an employee do about age discrimination?

If an employee thinks that their employer has discriminated against them because of their age and is unable to justify the treatment, the employee can make a claim to an employment tribunal.

A tribunal can:

  • determine the rights of an employee
  • award compensation to an employee
  • make recommendations to an employer to remedy the situation.

To bring an action for age discrimination or unfair dismissal, an employee has three months minus one day from the date of the last occasion on which they were discriminated against or from the date of their dismissal.

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