How to avoid age discrimination in the workplace
Whenever you hire a new employee, you make judgements about their skills, expertise and fit for a particular role. But it’s critical that the judgements you make aren’t based on a person’s age.

Instead, there are simple ways to ensure 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.

In the video below, Andrew Jewell, principal lawyer with Jewell Hancock Employment Lawyers, explains what employers need to know about age discrimination and answers some of the most common questions on this topic.

Why does age discrimination happen?

According to Jewell, age discrimination occurs because of negative assumptions about someone’s age.

“It might be that employers assume an older employee won’t be in a job for a long period of time, or won’t be good with technology or won’t be willing to learn,” he says. “Often these assumptions are actually incorrect.”

Assumptions to avoid about older candidates

One of the most common beliefs about older candidates is that they won’t be willing to commit to longer-term employment due to being closer to retirement age. “The issue with this is that it assumes younger employees are more likely to be committed long term, which often isn’t the case,” Jewell says.

Another assumption is believing that more mature candidates won’t be as willing or able to learn and develop. “If you have an employee who’s 60 years old applying for a role, remove the assumption that they're not there for a long period of time and remove the assumption that that person won’t be willing to learn some new technology,” Jewell says.  

Assumptions to avoid about younger candidates

“There’s a belief that a younger employee will lack the experience to do the role,” Jewell says. “While it is true that they can lack experience, younger employees can bring enthusiasm and it’s a good opportunity to train a ‘blank canvas’.”

Another common belief about younger employees is that they will be less committed to their work. “My experience is that at the start of their career, young professionals are very dedicated to their roles,” Jewell says.

Is it illegal to ask a candidate’s age?

It's only legal to ask for someone's age during the hiring process if it's a requirement of the role. So, for example, if you’re interviewing someone to work in an over-age venue, it’s legal to ask their age. However, Jewell cautions that circumstances warranting asking for a candidate’s birth date are rare. “It’s safe just to not ask for someone's date of birth in the recruitment process,” he says.

What are the dangers of age-based discrimination in the workplace or hiring process?

Age discrimination can have multiple impacts on a business. Vibrant, creative and productive workplaces are often made up of employees from different generations and unique backgrounds, and only having employees of a certain age can lead to a distinct lack of diversity.

“There’s also the more direct impact of losing experience,” Jewell says. “If you choose only younger employees then you’re not going to have the experience of older employees.”

Lastly, litigation is a legal possibility if employees believe they have been the victim of age discrimination. “This brings legal costs, compensation payments and damage to an employer’s reputation,” Jewell says. “The obvious effect is a negative impact on staff morale and culture.”

Stopping age discrimination

While overcoming workplace age discrimination is not necessarily simple, removing age-related questions in the hiring process and becoming aware of any negative beliefs you may have about older or younger workers can help make a shift towards a fairer and more diverse workforce.

Jewell says there are three practical ways to avoid age discrimination:

  1. Don’t request a candidate’s date of birth
    In most cases, there’s no reason to ask a candidate’s date of birth. “There’s no reason for this,” Jewell says. “You also shouldn’t calculate age based on a candidate’s graduation year or similar.”

    Instead focus on whether they have a skills and experience necessary for the role.
  2. Consider your own assumptions
    “All hirers have assumptions and it’s better to acknowledge them, rather than ignore them,” Jewell suggests.

    “Ask yourself if you think older employees are more likely to leave or if you have had a bad experience with a younger employee that clouds your judgement.”
  3. Focus on diversity
    Diversity is a broad goal and there are many ways to encourage a diverse workforce. Jewell suggests trying to create an age-diverse hiring team.

    “Don’t just have three executives in their 40s. If possible, try and include a younger and an older employee as they may be able to counter any bias,” he explains.

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. Avoid terms like “mature, experienced professional” or “dynamic, youthful team” as this suggests only applicants of a certain age will be considered.

And steer clear of asking for a number of years of experience – instead ask for candidates who have skills at a certain level.

It can sometimes be easy to fall into the trap of making assumptions based on a person’s age. Knowing your responsibilities around age discrimination means you’ll understand what’s expected of you as an employer and avoid letting assumptions inform your decisions. And you’ll also be actively growing a workforce that’s more 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.