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Employing Older Workers

With an ageing population leading to a need for many people to work longer and the abolition of retirement ages (except where this can be justified), the average age of people leaving the workplace has increased steadily over the last two decades and the over 50’s now make up over a third of the working population.

Some employers will no doubt be concerned that an older workforce will bring with it more challenges in terms of performance management, capability and health issues.

However, Government research confirms that older workers are just as productive as younger workers (at least up to the age of 70), they take less short-term sickness absence and tend to offset any loss of speed with better judgement because they are more experienced.

Furthermore, stereotypical views of older workers could lead to claims of age discrimination given that age is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010.

The Government wants employers to avoid seeing older workers as a risk or liability and seize the opportunities they offer; particularly given the Government are concerned that too few skilled younger workers entering the workplace to replace those leaving at the end of their careers will lead to a skills shortage, reduced efficiency and productivity and ultimately poorer business performance.

Proactive management and discussion about future plans and aspirations can help employers to ensure that older workers can continue to the best of their ability. These discussions should take place with workers of all ages, and can take place as frequently as needed, and don’t need to be formal appraisal style meetings; but they should include discussion about where the employee sees themselves in the short, medium and longer term. In the context of managing older workers, these discussions may include when the employee feels they may be ready to leave (the longer term), whether flexible working may attractive to them (particularly if they are ‘phasing’ in to retirement) (the shorter term), what support they might need and whether they may be considering a change of role (the medium term). Employers can’t ‘hold’ their employees to what is said in these discussions, but it will be a useful tool for understanding where the employee wants to be and how this may impact on the employer’s business.

Where there are genuine concerns about performance, capability or health, an employer should deal with these in exactly the same way as they would any other employee.

If an employee is performing poorly an employer should discuss this with them to establish the causes. Failure to address poor performance in older workers because, or in the expectation, that they will be leaving soon to draw their pension, or that it will be too undignified, could be discriminatory. An employer should also avoid falling into the stereotype that poor performance is more likely to be associated with older workers, particularly given research to the contrary.

Establishing the reasons for poor performance, setting improvement periods and agreeing what training and development would help the employee meet work or business expectations are the key to managing performance.

If the performance issues are caused by a health condition that is classed as a disability under the Equality Act 2010, then an employer will be under a duty to make reasonable adjustments to remove any barriers to the employee’s performance. This is no different to employing a younger employee with a disability.

The key message here is that communication between employees and employers at an early stage is crucial so that both parties can plan appropriately and maximise the opportunities available to them.

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