Diversity focus: fit for purpose

There is an overload of conflicting information available on age, but one
thing is for sure ­ this strand of diversity in the workplace includes every one
of us and has significant implications for many company policies and processes.

For example, the criteria you use to sift graduate applications, the amount
of experience you ask for when recruiting laterally, your promotion process,
benefits eligibility and, of course, your retirement age and right to work
beyond this are affected.

Yes, age legislation definitely helped to focus corporate minds on best
practice in this arena, but no, it has not solved all issues. If organisations
are truly committed to creating an inclusive environment, then their activity
needs to be more than a tick box exercise ­ otherwise ageism will become the
unspoken form of discrimination in the 21st century.

Between 2010 and 2030 there will be a 16% drop in people aged 25 to 39, and a
16% rise in people over 55. The concept of retirement as we know it won’t exist
in the future.

Recent CBI research showed that nearly one in three people are putting off
retirement because they cannot afford to stop working amid economic uncertainty,
or because they just don’t want to retire. Last year 81% of requests to work
beyond retirement age were granted, compared with 72% in 2007.

The other end of the scale is that Generation Y (born after 1980) expect very
different things from the world of work to those on offer to their parents. They
are goal-focused not career focused; dependent on technology; and motivated by
mentors not managers.

At Ernst & Young, our people range from 18 to 72 with an average age of
33. As a people organisation, we have a wealth of experience in working with
intergenerational relationships and value the richness of our mix. Some
industries have perhaps been accused of casting aside experienced talent in
favour of younger models, but I’ve not seen this approach.

The timing of such a question is poignant when you look at the business
environment we are facing ­ now more than ever we need seasoned professionals
who have the experience to deal with the scope and severity of the challenges.

Age should never be a barrier to progression in the firm. In E&Y, Mark
Otty, EMEIA area managing partner, was the youngest ever UK chairman and NEMIA
managing partner and Tracy Wood, at 28, became the firm’s youngest person to be
made partner.

Wrong assumptions

Someone’s age, whether younger of older, should not form part of the
assessment criteria at any stage of the individual’s career. The question is
whether they can do the job. The answer needs to take into account that we all
have unconscious bias and we are all prone to stereotyping. For example, how
often have you heard that Generation Y is not loyal to their employer or that
older accountants can’t keep up with technology?

There’s nothing wrong with stereotyping or bias, it’s the way we manage to
process multiple information, but we need to be aware of this when we make
decisions. One of our initiatives to build on this awareness is a reciprocal
mentoring programme where a group of our future leaders mentor our current
leaders. The aim of this has been to help explore and share the attitudes,
mindset and experiences between those at the top and those starting their

We have also sought to develop that to make sure our recruitment sourcing
accesses the broadest pools of talent. Research has shown us that at times,
unconscious bias about age can get the better of recruitment suppliers and, with
this in mind, we have launched Back2Practice ­ a flagship programme for UK
professional services, which supports women when returning to work after a
career break.

We initially targeted women who had successful careers in professional
services and, following a career break, were thinking of returning.

More than 40 women attended the first event earlier this month and some had
been out of the market for more than ten years. The aim is to give this pool of
talent access to roles that will acknowledge and value their previous skills and
potential, helping them to achieve their potential.

The secret to creating a world class organ-isation is in getting the right
mix of people and then managing the mix effectively so that everyone feels
supported to achieve their potential. No one group has the monopoly on talent ­
talent doesn’t discriminate and neither should we.

To prevent ageism becoming the unspoken form of discrimination in the 21st
century, everybody needs the chance to prove their potential and let their
talent shine.

Age discrimination facts

Since 1 October 2006, it is no longer lawful to discriminate on grounds of

The number of people aged under 50 is set to fall by two per cent by 2016,
while the number aged between 50 and 69 is set to increase by 17 per cent.

The new laws give individuals important new rights, extend existing rights
and remove traditional barriers and apply to all employers. They cover employees
of any age, and other workers, office holders, partners of firms and others.

An employer can only retire an individual below 65 where they can show that
having a lower retirement age is appropriate and necessary.

Whatever age you are, an employer must inform you in writing, at least six
months in advance, of your intended retirement date.

There is now a statutory right to request working beyond compulsory
retirement, which your employer must consider.

Fleur Bothwick is Ernst & Young’s diversity and inclusiveness

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