Side-stepping the landmines to make the most of older workers

Apr 20, 2012 | Good Management

There has been much in the media recently about the benefits of employing young people, from the Youth Employment Scheme to apprenticeships and internships, but with an ageing population and fewer young people joining the labour market there is a lot the older worker has to offer.  Here is my guide to making the most of older workers.

What are the benefits?

Older workers can often be more flexible because they are less likely to have young families and large financial commitments and can often be more willing to work variable, reduced or anti-social hours which can be a cost effective way of retaining talent and experience in your business.

Older members of staff are more likely to be long-serving and as such probably have a wealth of knowledge and experience that you may not be fully tapping in to.

What legislation applies?

The Equality Act that came into force in October 2010 is the most recent legislation protecting workers against age discrimination and applies to all workers, regardless of age.  Employers can no longer use age as a factor in decision making for recruitment, promotion, reward, redundancy and vocational training unless it can be objectively justified.

Then in October last year the Default Retirement Age was repealed meaning it is no longer lawful to enforce retirement unless there is objective justification.

What are the problems I should be thinking about?

The main concerns about older workers often cited by employers are that they believe this group are more likely to suffer from ill health (and this could affect their ability to do the job), or that they are likely to- slow down’ and not keep up with the demands of the role, even if there are no specific ill health concerns.

Previously, many employers did not worry too much about performance problems or increased absence from older workers, not wanting to damage relationships with long-serving employees who had made a valuable contribution in the knowledge that they would be retiring soon anyway.

Now that what was seen by many as an- easy’ option of waiting for retirement has been removed, employers are forced to be a bit more proactive addressing problems where they arise which many find challenging.

How can I make the most of older workers without being caught out by legislative changes?

1.   Check your policies

Make sure your organisation’s policies and procedures are up to date, removing any questions from application forms that ask about age, avoiding language that could indirectly discriminate when recruiting (such as a requirement to be “youthful” or adding an arbitrary minimum number of years’ experience), and removing any references to “company retirement age” “default retirement age” or benefits that require longer than five years’ continuous service to accrue.

2.   Keep an open mind

Make decisions about employees without regard to age, and don’t make assumptions. If you treat an older worker less favourably because you believe they are likely to suffer from ill health, rather than because of an actual problem, you are discriminating.

3.   Deal with problems quickly

If you do have a concern about an older worker’s performance or health, don’t let it drift, and address it in the same way as you would for any other member of staff: through good performance and absence management.

You no longer have the- safety net’ of automatic retirement but by dealing with potential problems early, you are far more likely to resolve them effectively and amicably, which has to be better for the team than avoiding dealing with the problem because you are waiting for an underperforming employee to retire.

4.   Keep lines of communication open.

It is fine to ask if employees have any idea about when they want to retire, because it helps with your business planning. If they don’t know, or don’t want to say, that’s fine too, as long as you do not treat them less favourably as a result.

It is also fine to discuss with them whether they want to make any changes to their hours or working arrangements, as long as you remember it is also fine for them to decline. Being flexible might help retain a good employee longer, save costs and also might improve performance for those experiencing difficulties.

5.   Try to focus on the benefits.

How will retaining older workers help your organisation and what will the costs of losing that worker be? Think about the knowledge and experience older workers bring, and consider being proactive about harnessing that, perhaps through mentoring for less-experienced employees, or by capturing their knowledge in written or recorded form.

As long as you understand and work within the restrictions, keep communicating and focus on the value each employee brings, you can make the most of your older workers and side-step those landmines.

If you have an older worker approaching retirement age and need some advice, contact us at [email protected].