As UK employers look to plug a chronic nationwide skills gap which is holding back growth, thousands of over-50s are being encouraged to ‘un-retire’ and go back to work.

According to government figures, an estimated 630,000 people have left Britain’s jobs market since 2019, with many aged 50+ choosing not to return to the workplace after the Covid pandemic.

While having older people on your team certainly has many positives, employers need to be mindful of any potential problems that might arise, such as age discrimination and harassment claims.

Alexandra Bullmore, employment solicitor with Smith Partnership, looks at how to prevent such issues, so that employing an older and more diverse workforce works well for everyone.

Employing older people can provide your business or organisation with many benefits.  Staff in their 50s and 60s have decades of invaluable experience and are known to be resilient, adaptable, and knowledgeable. Those starting work in the 1970s and 80s will, for example, have seen groundbreaking changes in technology and their way of working during their working lives, so aren’t easily fazed. 

As the government seeks to entice retirees back to work there is a sound business case for employers to take on older people as part of their commitment to Diversity and Inclusion. But, before you do so, you must first revisit your employment policies and ensure that everyone is aware of what constitutes age discrimination. Age is a protected characteristic under the UK’s equality act, so discriminating against anyone, directly or indirectly, on the grounds of how old they are, is unlawful.

You could also be inviting potential claims of harassment if other employees engage in any ‘unwanted conduct’ which centres on an employee’s age. As an employer, you must make sure that employees do not take any workplace ‘banter’ too far.

What might be deemed as a joke by some, might not be seen that way by the person on the receiving end. It is not a defence in law to say that the behaviour wasn’t meant to cause offence or upset; it focuses on the effect it had on the person in question. To promote greater understanding, as well as to avoid legal hot water, equality training should be given to all staff, and the relevant policies and procedures highlighted to everyone.

Having an older workforce may also mean that HR teams have more health issues to contend with. Again, employers need to ensure the health and safety of all their employees if they are to prevent falling foul of any claims. If more people aged 50+ do heed the government’s call to return to work, employers will also need to take extra care not to discriminate against older job candidates at every stage of the recruitment process.

When you’re advertising a position, you should avoid using terms that target someone by age bracket, such as by asking for applicants with five years’ experience, as this could be perceived as ageist. Filtering candidates because of a protected characteristic, such as age, can be unlawful, and an employment candidate’s date of birth should not be used as a deciding factor when offering someone a job.

Whether older employees return to work because of the cost-of-living crisis – or because they feel they still have a lot to give to an employer – they can be a great asset. Diversity in the workplace is a good thing and should be encouraged; just make sure your employment policies relating to age are up to date.