News Analysis: How will ageism law affect you?

New age-discrimination laws will fundamentally affect the way the PR industry recruits staff. The changes are roundly welcomed, finds Alex Black

From 1 October, it will be breaking the law to use words such as ‘young' in a job advert. Specifying a certain time period of experience as a prerequisite for interview will also be illegal. If employers ignore this, they are leaving themselves open to legal action - in the same way they would if they turned someone down on the basis of their sexuality or ethnicity.

Does this mean agencies specialising in the youth sector are going toreceive a flood of applications from 45-year-olds going through a mid-life crisis? Will 21-year-old account executives start firing off CVs for jobs they would previously have expected to target a few years down the line.

Probably not, but in both scenarios, turning down the applicant on the basis that they are ‘too old', or ‘too inexperienced', could get the recruiter into big trouble.

Careful wording
Prospect Resourcing director Emma Dale says the new rules will make a big difference to how organisations advertise vacant positions.

‘Adverts in magazines such as PRWeek have typically been full of phrases that could be perceived as ageist because numerous agencies like to refer to themselves as "young" and "dynamic" and therefore like to attract this type of candidate,' she says.

So how can employers make sure job specs attract people at the right level? ‘Instead of asking for "Two years at account-manager level", job ads will instead ask for "Applicants with experience of dealing with…" and then go on to list the typical duties of an account manager,' suggests Rupert Wallis, senior manager at recruitment firm Media Contacts.

Wallis welcomes the move, describing the PR industry as ‘one of the most ageist industries I have ever worked for'. He adds: ‘PR agencies often have a lot of preconceptions about age, and will refuse to interview people over 40. But the in-house market is less ageist. I've placed people in-house who would almost certainly have been rejected by an agency.'

What the new laws will undoubtedly do is make age less of an issue for people applying for jobs: perfectly
capable ‘grey panthers' looking for a career shift will no longer be automatically rejected, and bright young things with bags of capability will get a fighting chance to leapfrog their peers.

Cohn & Wolfe UK CEO Jonathan Shore says his agency tends to attract younger people, even though it has never specified a desired age group in its job adverts. A recent C&W ad for a divisional director attracted candidates with an average age of 33.

‘We've only received a handful of CVs over the past few years from people aged over 40,' says Shore. ‘But we'd be positively delighted to get CVs from people who didn't reflect our standard age profile. Variety strengthens our culture.'

Xchangeteam CEO Emma Brierley agrees that the new law is a good thing. ‘The business models of many PR agencies are geared around bringing in young people and not retaining them,' she says. ‘I've never been a fan of youth over experience and this will encourage greater diversity.'

Employee benefits
Another aspect of the new legislation that HR directors might not have considered is the employee benefits.

Major Players divisional head Lorraine Barker says giving employees benefits based on length of service (for example, the award of six-month sabbaticals after a decade at the company) could be seen as age discrimination against younger employees because they simply might not have been in employment that long.

Neville Price, chairman at recruiter PTH, says companies must be less ageist, but is optimistic that a change in mindset will come to pass, saying: ‘It wasn't that long ago when people would come to us saying they wanted a chap for a role, but people know that's not acceptable any more.'

But those agency MDs who prefer younger (and, of course, cheaper) colleagues do not need to worry that they will need to interview, or employ, token greyheads just to avoid employment tribunals.

They might not be able to reject, say, a 45-year-old applying for a youth specialist role purely on account of
his or her age - but the likelihood of the applicant having a detailed knowledge of MySpace and the trainer trends among 15-year-olds are arguably slim, and thus he or she could be reasonably rejected on that basis.

Recruitment agencies are already well prepared for the new legislation on 1 October. With a change in job-ad lexicon and a bit of common sense, employers will be, too.

AGE DISCRIMINATION: what it means for employers and staff

01. Age discrimination legislation comes into force on 1 October.

02. The new legislation is part of the UK's diversity laws, which make it illegal for any employer to discriminate on the grounds of race, sex, disability, religion, belief or sexual orientation.

03. All employers will be obliged to ‘prohibit discrimination, harassment and victimisation against a person on the grounds of age in relation to employment and vocational training'.

04. Using descriptions such as ‘young' in job adverts will be interpreted as discriminatory.

05. Asking for a certain period of experience - ‘two years as an account manager' for example, will also count as discrimination.

06. A national default retirement age of 65 will be introduced, making compulsory retirement below 65 unlawful. However, all employees will have the ‘right to request' to work beyond 65, or any other retirement age set by the company, and all employers will have to consider such requests.

07. The Government's Age Positive campaign has teamed up with the Age Partnership Group to produce a summary on age legislation and provide answers to frequently asked questions.

Further information on age legislation is available at the Department of Trade and Industry website. If you think you are being discriminated against, talk to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service on 08457 474747

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