People & Human Resources

New Tricks: Four tips for employers to avoid age discrimination

Kirsten Robb /

The latest figures from the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission show more than half of the age discrimination complaints it received in the last 12 months related to employment, and the percentage is on the rise.

So far this financial year, the commission has received 75 complaints regarding age discrimination in the area of employment, out of a total of 123. 

With Australian companies often unwilling to employ older workers, Equal Opportunity Commissioner Kate Jenkins told SmartCompany it is important for small business to be aware age discrimination is unlawful.

She says the majority of complaints concern recruitment, with some older workers even attesting they have applied for more than 2000 jobs and have been rejected on the grounds of age.

With the retirement age set to rise to 70 by 2040, Jenkins says small business not only needs to be more aware of age discrimination laws, but they could also take advantage of the opportunities of employing older workers.

“People are working longer and people are fitter to an older age, so it will become necessary for all employers to look at older workers,” says Jenkins.

Here are four tips to make sure your business is on top of age discrimination.

1. Know that it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of age

Jenkins says firstly, small businesses need to be aware that just like sex, race and disability discrimination, age discrimination is illegal. 

“Although we outlawed age discrimination in 1996 and got rid of compulsory retirement, the attitude that older workers shouldn’t be in the workforce and should retire at certain age has remained,” says Jenkins. “It’s pretty systemic and blatant.”

2. You cannot ask an employee about their age, suggest they retire based on their age or choose them for redundancy based on age.

“If an employer has concerns about the performance and physical capability of an employee, they shouldn’t have concerns just because of their age,” says Jenkins.

She says while an employer can enquire about physical fitness for manual labour jobs, they would need substantial grounds, such as evidence of dangerously driving a fork lift, to question an employee.

“They can be concerned about safety, but age alone won’t impair ability and is not a reason to be concerned,” she says.

3. Don’t fall for myths about older workers.

Jenkins says there are many myths and stereotypes about older workers that employers should challenge, such as the idea that older workers can’t learn new things, that they have trouble with technology or that they take a lot of sick leave.

“The research in fact shows the opposite,” says Jenkins.

“Older workers have better attendance. Over 55s are five times more likely to stay in job than the 20-24 age bracket [and] older workers are able and very good at picking up technology,” she says.

4. Consider flexible employment for many older workers

Jenkins says that employers should look at flexible employment for older workers, such as more part-time work.

“Older workers may not need a full-time wage or they may be looking after grandchildren one day a week,” she says.

And Jenkins says the ability to be flexible can attract valuable employees.

She says small businesses should take the lead from larger employers, such as Bunnings, which show employing older workers can be a great opportunity for a company.

“Employers need to be aware that it’s not just unlawful, there is a real shortage and a real opportunity to have a have diverse workforce who are loyal, stable, more committed,” says Jenkins.

More information of discrimination law and best practices can be found here.

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Kirsten Robb

Kirsten Robb is a former journalist at SmartCompany. Previously, she worked at News Corp as a property reporter for Leader Newspapers and the Herald Sun, and holds a Masters of Journalism at Melbourne University.

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