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Last Updated: Monday, 19 June 2006, 22:27 GMT 23:27 UK
New weapon in discrimination war
By Clare Matheson
Business reporter, BBC News

Glastonbury reveller in mud
Throw enough mud and some should stick, experts believe
New discrimination laws could mean a new weapon in the arsenal of employees hoping to take action against their companies.

From October, workers will be able to claim unfair dismissal on the grounds of age bias.

Experts say the change in the law comes at a time when workers are increasingly relying on a scattergun approach to discrimination tribunals.

Their hope is that if they make a number of different allegations, at least one will stick.

"Under new laws, we expect [age-related] claims to manifest themselves with others. It will be another bullet companies have got to dodge," says Michael Farrier, employment law specialist at Boyes Turner.

"I think we'll see age quickly become a key incidental claim, probably alongside disability."

Rush of cases?

In the Irish Republic, where ageism laws came into force in 2004, one-fifth of discrimination claims now have an age element to them.

There's a lot of uncertainty about the changes - usually it's black and white
Michael Farrier, Boyes Turner

As a result, UK government figures predict ageism laws will lead to an extra 8,000 cases - in other words, a 10% rise in the number of discrimination claims.

"I think there could be a flood of claims. The thing about age is, everybody's got one," Sam Mercer director of the Employers' Forum on Age (EFA) adds.

As far as the law is concerned, the changes are aimed at bringing the UK into line with European Union laws.

Four key areas will be addressed: the recruitment process, benefits (for example, long-service holidays), limits to career progression based on age and enforced retirement.

Multiple claims

Recruitment groups FSS and Crone Corkill underline the point in a mock tribunal they have set up to educate employers about discrimination and the upcoming ageism laws.

The claimant, "Edna Clunge", has taken her company to court for unfair dismissal on age, sex and disability grounds.

The Office
The new laws aren't limited to older workers

The only woman and youngest engineer at her firm, she says she has suffered unwanted advances from her boss and e-mails about "football, farting and beer", while little allowance is made for the fact that she suffers from depression.

While the subject matter - including a long debate over whether her boss said "I have the hots for you" or "that's a hot vindaloo" - prompts laughter, it teaches some serious lessons.

For example, it calls into question the culture allowed to develop at work. "Laddish" e-mails and a "boys' club atmosphere" could provide cause for a sex discrimination claim.

Young versus old

It also brings into question the common perception that older workers will mount challenges.

Some commentators believe younger people, part of the so-called "Me Me Me Generation", will begin legal action under the new laws.

In the short term, it will be a big burden for employers to get their heads around
Richard Wainer, CBI

They point to social statistics showing that younger people are more savvy about their rights - and know how to use them to get as much money as possible.

However, Mr Farrier does not believe that is the case.

"I would expect more older people to take action, as the ageing demographic means there will be a sea-change in 25 years, so I expect older folk to know more about their rights."

"Younger people are less likely to claim. But then when the claims bracket was raised to 50,000, more claims were brought by middle managers, as their losses made it worth having a go."

For her part, Ms Mercer of the EFA predicts "interesting times ahead".

"I think in the recruitment scenario, there are some people who are very angry and very articulate who are being frustrated in their attempt to get back to work."

"They're going to have the time and incentive to go after employers," she adds.

Under scrutiny

The recruitment groups' exercise also teaches that firms will have to take a close look at their working practices.

"First of all, there will be changes to policy. Procedure regarding equal opportunities, retirement, job specs and descriptions will need any age bias removing," says recruitment expert Paul Marsh, head of training and HR at FSS and Crone Corkill.

Glasses on employee performance documents
Firms will have to have good records to protect against claims

"People are starting to realise how far-reaching the changes will be," Mr Farrier adds.

"There's a lot of uncertainty about the changes. Usually it's black-and-white. For example, when sexual orientation came in, you could understand precisely what was expected.

"The impact will be far more dramatic in social terms and far more diverse in the thinking of companies - they won't be able to move without justification."

Firms will have to have good records and policies and be transparent about their procedures, he says.

Unpredictable

"In the short term, it will be a big burden for employers to get their heads around," says senior CBI policy adviser Richard Wainer.

"Companies are going to face problems planning ahead as tribunals are going to go on a case-by-case basis, so we don't know how tough tribunals are going to be," he adds.

Even Edna's case serves to illustrate the caution surrounding the new laws.

While she attacked on three fronts, only one claim was successful.

Her claim failed on age grounds - a surprising result at an event designed to promote ageism awareness - but won on the far more clear-cut criterion of sexism.

But the mock event also served to show that if enough allegations are thrown at a company, at least one is likely to hit home.




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