Ageism, also called age discrimination, is when you are treated unfavourably because of your age. This section focuses on ageism that you may experience at work and how you are protected by law.
For more information about other areas where you may experience ageism, see our page on the Equality Act.
Under the Equality Act, you are protected from age discrimination in all aspects of your employment including recruitment, employment terms and conditions, promotions and transfers, training and dismissals.
The Equality Act protects you from direct discrimination, indirect discrimination, harassment and victimisation. Some examples of what these might include are below:
- Direct discrimination - When your employer says he/she will not promote you because you’re 'too old'.
- Indirect discrimination - If your employer offers a training course only to recent graduates, this could constitute indirect discrimination, as it could exclude older employees.
- Harassment - If colleagues made jokes about your age which were offensive, or comments made about the age of someone you associate with, such as a partner.
- Victimisation - For example, if you are passed over for a promotion that you would otherwise have been given, after making a witness statement supporting a colleague’s complaint of age discrimination.
Remember, an employer may be able to justify discrimination, but they can never justify harassment or victimisation.
While the Equality Act 2010 protects you from age discrimination at work or when applying for a job, there is an exception in the law which applies to age discrimination only.
The exception means that an employer can make a decision based on someone’s age if they can show that it is objectively justified and proportionate. This should only be a defence in a limited number of circumstances and doesn’t mean that employers have ‘free reign’ to discriminate against older workers.
An example of when age discrimination can be objectively justified is when employees doing a physically demanding job could be made to retire when they reach a certain age, for health and safety reasons. Aside from very specific circumstances like this, employers can’t force employees to retire. The default retirement age was scrapped in 2011.
What to do about ageism at work
If you feel like you have experienced direct or indirect discrimination, harassment or victimisation in the workplace, you should first follow your employer’s grievance procedure (see dealing with disputes at work for more information).
If you find that this doesn’t have a successful outcome, you may need to seek further advice with a view to going to an employment tribunal. Bear in mind that there are strict time limits for bringing a case to tribunal – three months from the day of the first incident(s). You may want to seek expert advice before you consider this. Acas offers free advice and guidance on matters relating to workplace discrimination.
You could also contact the Equality Advisory and Support Service (EASS). They can advise you on what steps to take and on the time limits you have to act within for pursuing a discrimination claim.