Why employers should think twice before forcing out older workers

When Anne Robinson recently left Countdown, the 77-year-old broadcaster quipped: “I’ve had a blast hosting this wonderful show and I stayed longer than I signed up for. Now it is time for an older woman to take the reins.” Robinson said she hoped she had “encouraged TV bosses to realise that not all women at the wrong end of their 70s are in care homes playing bingo and watching conjuring tricks”.

But realistically, do many 77-year-olds have jobs to lose, or are they more likely to have been squeezed out of employment 20 years earlier, perhaps in their 60s or even in their mid-50s?

As life expectancies move ever upwards, a disconnect prevails in some sectors between the years people need or want to work and the period that employers consider them to be employable. The reality is that growing numbers of them are edged out – typically in their mid-50s onwards – often with little hope of gaining alternative employment. Invariably, the net result can lead to many years of imposed retirement for which they are unprepared, either personally or financially.

Despite the Equality Act 2010 outlawing age discrimination, this can often linger just beneath the surface in many workplaces: employers often having a secret agenda of ‘easing out’ older workers – perhaps years before they are ready to retire – only to replace them with younger ones.

Such an approach can be legally justified in very limited circumstances – if older employees can be shown to be blocking the career progression of younger ones. For that reason, many partners in large law firms and in the ‘big four’ accountancy firms are required to leave before they reach 60 with ‘glide paths’ to encourage early retirement.

In many companies, a ‘new broom hire’ will often result in the sweeping out of older employees to be replaced by younger ones chosen by the new hire (often having worked with them previously). This common practice suggests that such employers place little value on long service, expertise or knowledge that has been acquired over time.

A predictable employment pattern exists: those of a certain age are deemed to be less employable and therefore less likely to find other roles. Although some wise employers do see the value in retaining experienced employees and adapting to any age-related changes, many of their less enlightened counterparts force older workers out when they still have so much to give.

In my experience of working with older employees who have either been dismissed outright or forced out due to their age, much can be achieved in recompense: securing settlement terms that adequately compensate them for the upset and loss they suffer.

Once forced out, some older senior employees (frequently supported by outplacement) take on fresh challenges, such as becoming trustees or non-executive directors. However, such opportunities are not available to most less senior employees. The older they get, the harder finding an alternative source of income becomes.

Zoe Walters, former HR supremo at Condé Nast and Adidas, and now CEO of The OutPlacers, offers constructive solutions to the problem: “We have intern and work placement programmes for incoming youth, so why not have mature programs that can help those at the other end,” she suggests.

Walters advocates cross-skilling mature employees to become coaches, facilitators, trainers and mentors who can work across the organisation bringing their valuable wisdom and experience to others.

She adds: “Retirement is scary – a huge shift in lifestyle that takes some time to transition, hence why older employees struggle when they are pushed out unexpectedly. Being transparent around end-of-career transition and having support for final offboarding can really help.”

These are wise words that more employers should definitely take on board.

Published in People Management – 7 June 2022