Focus: People Management - Age law will keep charities on their toes

Ashley Mastandrea

The question of volunteers will muddy the waters for the third sector.

Charities and voluntary organisations are preparing for legislation, due to come into force on 1 October, that will outlaw employment practices or policies that discriminate on the basis of age. The legislation will mean that they will have to review their HR practices, especially their retirement, benefit, promotion and recruitment procedures, to make sure that they are up to date.

The Musicians Benevolent Fund is one charity that has reviewed its policies and changed employment procedures to make sure policies don't rely on age. "It's about good practice," said Rosanna Preston, chief executive of the charity. "We are trying to be clearer about our policy and more transparent about our dealings so we treat people equally."

Under the new law, employers will no longer be allowed to force employees to retire when they reach the age of 65. Gabriel Barton, HR technical editor at Consult GEE, an online information service, suggested that charities start by talking to people nearing 65 years old.

Recruitment strategies should also be reviewed to make sure advertisements don't use discriminatory language. Words such as 'mature', 'lively' or 'energetic' may be seen as discriminatory. Charity employers must take care not to award benefits, nor to promote or train people, on the basis of their age.

Barton suggested that charities that rely heavily on volunteers should evaluate the status of their volunteer workforce. Although volunteers are not included in the legislation, they may be considered employees if they receive compensation for their work. Likewise, those doing vocational training will be protected under the new law.

Like other anti-discrimination laws, the new legislation will be enforced through employee claims. There is no limit to the amount of compensation that can be awarded to employees who demonstrate at a tribunal that they have been treated less favourably than their colleagues because of their age, and that they have suffered as a result.

The complexity of the legislation makes its likely effects unclear. Roger Byard, head of the charity team at law firm Cripps-Harries Hall, said: "If an employer shows that its actions were proportionate and related to a legitimate business aim, they are protected."

Employment tribunals will determine what justifies a legitimate business aim.

But John Burnell, director of Personnel Solutions, does not think charities will need to overhaul their practices to comply with the law.

"Charities will be affected less than other organisations because many already have anti-discrimination practices in place," he said.

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