More than a quarter of Australian workers aged 50 years and older have experienced age discrimination at work during the past two years, according to the first national prevalence survey into workplace age discrimination by the Human Rights Commission.
The survey of 2109 Australians, conducted between November and December 2014, reveals discrimination against workers on the basis of their age remains a part of many Australian workplaces.
The older workers are, the more likely they are to experience discrimination, according to the survey, with the highest incidence of age discrimination occurring among workers aged between 55 and 64 years old.
One in three workers aged between 55 and 59 (32%) reported experiencing age discrimination, while 31% of those aged between 60 and 64 reported incidences of discrimination. For workers aged 65 and older, 20% reported experiences of discrimination.
A third of workers aged 50 and older (32%) also reported being aware of other people in the same age group experiencing age-based discrimination at work. Of this group, 56% of workers said they believe age discrimination in workplaces occurs all the time or frequently.
Discrimination is more prevalent for older workers looking for a new job, with 58% of survey respondents who were looking for paid work experiencing age discrimination, compared to 28% of respondents who were in paid work and 26% of those who are self-employed.
Low-income earners also reported a higher incidence of age discrimination, with 37% of workers aged 50 and older who reported their annual household income as less than $50,000 experiencing discrimination. This compares to a rate of 27% for workers with annual household income above $50,000.
A job applicant’s age was taken into consideration by 44% of managers aged 50 or older when making hiring decisions, while 33% of managers aged 50 or older who had some responsibility for decision-making about staff considered their employees’ age either always, frequently or occasionally.
In a worrying sign, of the respondents who chose not to take any action about age-related discrimination in the workplace, the majority said it was because they did not expect a positive outcome. Some said they felt they would not be believed, while others doubted whether anything could be done.
Releasing the research this morning, Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan said age discrimination is a “significant barrier” to older workers participating in the workforce for as long as they want to.
“I continually receive representations from older Australians who have worked all their lives, are experienced, qualified, eager and open-minded, yet who can’t get a look in when it comes to paid work,” Ryan said in a statement.
“Age discrimination affects self-esteem, financial security and health. It can be devastating for individuals.”
But Ryan said age discrimination all has a financial impact on Australian companies that discard experience and wisdom, as well as the broader Australian economy.
“Research shows that an increase of 5% in paid employment of Australians over the age of 55 would result in a $48 billion impact on the national economy, every year,” Ryan said.
What it means for your business
Psychologist and SmartCompany blogger Eve Ash says SMEs can begin tackling age discrimination in their workplaces by first “looking within ourselves to questions the assumptions we make about people”.
“We all have a way of filtering and often the filters we apply are not quite right because they are based on assumptions,” Ash says.
While perceptions of older workers will depend on the age of the person making the assumption – “for someone who is 50, 70 is old” – Ash says it is important to remember that qualities that may make someone unsuited to a workplace, such as a rigid attitude, are a “personality issue” and not a question of age.
Just as there are people in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s who are “articulate and have wisdom and experience”, Ash says it would also be misguided to make assumptions about Gen Y workers or Millennials.
Ash recommends focusing on workers’ knowledge and attitude and what they can bring to your business, rather than their age.
Andrew Jewell, senior associate at employment law firm McDonald Murholme, agrees with Ash, telling SmartCompany it is important for SMEs to make decisions about recruitment and managing their staff “regardless of age” and ensuring they don’t “pigeonhole” older workers.
Jewell recommends placing value on the experience of workers and avoiding off-the-cuff remarks about someone’s age or plans for retirement, even if they are well-intentioned. Being open to flexible working arrangements may also help SMEs continue to employ older workers, Jewell says.
And if one of your workers does make a complaint about how they are being treated, especially when they are being performance managed, Jewell says employers should again “avoid any comments regarding age” and instead “keep the discussion around the issue”.
“Keep records and make sure you can justify any actions you take, which is good HR practice and should apply to everyone,” he says.