How to avoid age discrimination in the workplace
Hiring an employee relies on making judgements about their skills, expertise and fit for a particular role. But it’s important that the judgements you make aren’t based on a person’s age.

Instead, there are simple ways to ensure that you’re not treating candidates or employees differently because of their age – and that you’re not making assumptions about how their age impacts their ability to do a role.

What is age discrimination?

“Age discrimination is when an employer takes adverse action against a person due to their age,” says Jaenine Badenhorst, an associate lawyer with Dyhrberg Drayton.

Adverse action can include anything from treating a person poorly, to not giving them equal pay or opportunities, causing them to be disadvantaged or using their age as a reason not to hire them. Age discrimination can be experienced by people of any age – old or young.

Which laws do I need to know about?

Badenhorst says the most important law to be aware of is in the Bill of Rights Act, the Human Rights Act and the Employment Relations Act.

It’s important to know that there are smaller pieces of law that may apply to specific situations, for instance the age that a person can hold a manager’s licence in a bar or pub, and a lower minimum hourly rate for younger workers.

“Employers are recommended to be familiar with laws that apply to them in their specific industries,” Badenhorst says. “You should seek legal advice if you are unsure of your obligations.”

Age discrimination in the hiring process

Some common examples of age discrimination in the hiring stage include a reluctance to employ older candidates because of a belief that they’re not as competent with technology or are slower at picking up new skills.

Or perhaps younger employees may not be given a fair opportunity because of assumptions of irresponsibility and immaturity.

Badenhorst notes that it’s possible to discriminate more indirectly including on the basis of gender or family status, for example by avoiding employing women of childbearing age or avoiding promoting them into more senior roles because of a concern they will take maternity leave or that they’ll be less valuable employees after having children.

Age discrimination against current employees

If an employee isn’t given the same opportunities for career advancement (such as promotion, the chance to take a course, or mentorship) due to their age, this may be discriminatory.

“Employees may miss out on other benefits too like health insurance, or the option to work in certain roles such as labour jobs or front of house roles,” Badenhorst says.

New Zealand does not have a compulsory retirement age and more than 20% of people aged over 65 years are still working. While there are some exceptions (such as where the retirement age is written into law like judges and coroners), Badenhorst says forcing employees into retirement can be discriminatory in some cases, especially if they are still competent.

“Essentially any treatment that is “different”, and that is due to age, could amount to discrimination,” she says.

How to avoid age discrimination in the workplace

Put simply, avoiding age discrimination comes down to avoiding assumptions about age.

“Employers should avoid making assumptions about people based on their age alone and should instead focus on their ability and matching that to tasks, duties and roles,” Badenhorst says.

Here are some more specific ways you can ensure age discrimination has no place in your organisation:

  • Focus on skills, not age
    “If there are concerns about an employee’s experience, ability to work with certain tools or technology, pick up new skills or their level of responsibility, that should be the focus of any job interview, skills testing, reference checking, task allocation or promotions, rather than age,” Badenhorst says.
  • Encourage diversity 
    Vibrant, creative and productive workplaces are often made up of employees from different generations and unique backgrounds. Diversity is a broad goal and there are many ways to encourage a diverse workforce.

    These include ensuring interview panels are diverse, offering targeted internships or mentoring opportunities, and making sure that any policies for diversity include age. It’s also worth highlighting your organisation’s commitment to diversity on your website or in your job ad.
  • Ensure hiring managers are aware of policies and rules 
    All candidates should be treated equally when it comes to considering them for employment or advancement. “They should be asked the same questions and be given the same tests,” Badenhorst says.

    It’s important to be aware of the rules and legislation around age discrimination and know that they apply to all aspects of employment including recruitment and selection, pay and conditions, training and promotion and ending employment.
  • Remove age bias from job ads 
    Job ads create an important first impression so before you upload your ad, make sure the language you’re using isn’t inadvertently discriminatory. Don’t advertise for “digital natives” or “millennials wanted” – instead emphasise the skills you want.

    It’s also good to avoid terms like “mature, experienced professional” or “dynamic youthful team” as this suggests only applicants of a certain age will be considered.

Sometimes it’s easy to fall into the trap of making assumptions based on a person’s age. But we can all confront these assumptions, and avoid letting them inform our decisions. Knowing your responsibilities around age discrimination means you’ll understand what’s expected of you as an employer. And you’ll also be actively growing a workforce that’s diverse and reflects the society in which we live.

Information provided in this article is general only and it does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. SEEK provides no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability or completeness. Before taking any course of action related to this article you should make your own inquiries and seek independent advice (including the appropriate legal advice) on whether it is suitable for your circumstances.

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