Tech and the age trap: why UK businesses need to be alert to age discrimination
5 January 2023 | Applicable law: England and Wales
Tech founders beware. Although ageism can be encountered in any workplace, statistics suggest that this sort of discrimination is particularly prevalent in the tech industry. From discriminatory hiring practices to bullying, 41% of tech employees have observed ageism at work compared to 27% of other employees. 1
What constitutes age discrimination?
The potential trap into which some tech executives fall was illustrated in a recent case where Selazar Limited, a tech start-up founded by 29-year-old entrepreneur Mr Williams, was found to have subjected its former Finance Director, 55-year-old Mrs McCabe, to discriminatory treatment. The employment tribunal found that some of Mr Williams' conduct amounted to age discrimination. In particular it found that:
- Mr Williams viewed older people as 'not familiar' with IT businesses, after several pieces of evidence pointed to that – for example, a recruitment consultant had told Mrs McCabe that he had been instructed by Mr Williams to find 'a younger team member who was more in tune with a young tech start company'.
- In a meeting on 28 May 2022, Mr Williams had told Mrs McCabe to 'calm down' and not 'let the hormones get out of control'. This indicated that Mr Williams viewed Mrs McCabe as a menopausal woman. The tribunal found that he 'would not have said this to a younger person'.
An off the cuff remark and an ill-considered instruction to a head-hunter thus led to a costly judgment about Mr Williams' attitudes to older workers. The employment tribunal awarded Mrs McCabe £125,604.98 in compensation for her claims, including the complaint of age discrimination. Compensation for injury to feelings alone was £20,000.
Furthermore, a potential investor had declined to invest in the company, in part because Mr Williams had given a 'couple of hints that [he] was too old to understand'. Through giving the impression that older people were irrelevant to the business, Mrs McCabe's claim was bolstered, demonstrating how discriminatory conduct and attitudes can have a negative impact on potential business investment as well as the wellbeing of employees.
The value of embracing diversity within tech
If the statistics are correct, there are many more tech businesses that are potentially exposed to this sort of cost and adverse publicity.
But tech businesses that instead recognise the potential value of all their workers stand to benefit. They will tend to resist the stereotype that young people are better-suited to working in tech, as a result of an assumption of better adaptability and familiarity with it.
In a job market in which talent is scare, they will remain open to a larger pool of good candidates than those who close their minds to older workers. They will also remain open to the possibility that older workers have more than just experience to offer, and also bring with them values and principles that they have acquired from working in different environments. This can help a start-up with developing its culture.
As the Selazar case demonstrates, companies that avoid stereotyping will also remain attractive to a larger pool of investors. In a sector where innovation and new ideas are integral to success, greater diversity amongst the workforce will ultimately enable the best output and lead to growth.
Avoiding age discrimination
Failing to recognise and address ageism can have significant consequences for businesses in any sector. However, there are a number of active steps that can be taken to avoid age discrimination.
- Attracting employees – when advertising vacant roles and providing job descriptions, avoid adopting language that ostracises older employees, such as 'recent graduate' or 'fun, young team'.
- Recruiting employees - an obvious preference or heavier weighting towards skills over experience can discourage and alienate older applicants. Training can be given to build skills and expertise.
- Retaining employees – a working culture and environment that values diversity and appreciates employees for their differences is essential for retaining the best talent. This can be achieved through training, development and promotion opportunities that are available to all staff, regardless of age.
To foster an inclusive environment, companies should have an anti-discrimination policy that is communicated to all employees, followed in practice, underpinned by good quality training and above all, understood and promoted from the top.