Opinion: Third Voice - Sector must embrace age discrimination changes

William Garnett

The Age Discrimination Regulations come into effect on 1 October this year. As an employment lawyer, I know the voluntary sector is ahead of the commercial sector. Charities generally embrace the new legislation and recognise its role in seeking to achieve both fairness and best practice.

I would bet that the sector has much better equal opportunity policies than the commercial sector in general. The difficulty is that the sector often lacks the resources to turn those policies into practice.

The sector is often criticised by judges in the employment field because the proportion of claims taken to tribunal is so high compared with other parts of the economy. One reason for this, aside from the management shortcomings that exist in the sector, the shortage of funds and the willingness of some to pursue claims on a non-commercial basis, is the fact that the sector goes into territory others wish to avoid. The third sector has been at the forefront of employing disabled people since the discrimination legislation came into place, and within the sector you will find a higher proportion of women and people from ethnic minorities in managerial positions.

Given that potential for a greater number of claims, we should not be ashamed of the statistics.

Age discrimination legislation will have great influence on employers.

Age discrimination claims represent 16 per cent of all employment claims in Ireland, where legislation was introduced in 1998.

It is essential that employers in the sector do not misunderstand this legislation. It will require a real change of approach, a move away from the old belief that with age come experience, wisdom and judgement. Age must not be taken into consideration in deciding on the treatment of staff, from recruitment through to termination, unless "the treatment is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim".

It is likely that the sector will be at the forefront of allowing people to work to an older age. That is to be welcomed, provided that managers have the willingness to deal with those people who are not performing well. In my opinion, such willingness is in short supply. Too many managers fail to address underperformance, either longing for the day when they can make individuals redundant or taking the really long approach and waiting until they retire.

Those days are gone.

- William Garnett is head of the employment department at law firm Bates, Wells & Braithwaite: w.garnett @bateswells.co.uk.

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