Fighting Age Discrimination in the Workplace

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, July 11, 2018


At any given time, there are multiple generations operating in the workforce: new starters, more established professionals and those heading towards retirement.

While this can create a diverse positive workplace, where a range of different experiences, attitudes and learnings can be shared, it also creates a possible environment for age discrimination.

Age discrimination can occur at all stages of employment, including recruitment, the general office experience, in workplace terms and conditions and at dismissal.

What is age discRimination? 

It is against the law to discriminate against anybody in the workplace because of their actual or assumed age.

There are two main categories of age discrimination:

  • Direct age discrimination. This applies if somebody facing a disadvantage or an advantage in the workplace exclusively because of their age. For example, if an older person is overlooked for promotion because it is assumed that they are not as comfortable with technology as a younger person, this would be direct age discrimination.
  • Indirect age discrimination. This is more difficult to identify and generally applies in circumstances where there is an ostensibly fair policy in place for all staff, which nonetheless is likely to affect staff of different ages in different ways. An example could be an employee being selected for redundancy simply because they are thought to be closer to retirement age and less likely to be affected by the redundancy.

Not Just a problem for older workerS

Although many people assume that only older workers are discriminated against, workers of all ages can become victims of age discrimination.

Examples include:

  • Young workers may be discriminated against due to:
      • Their relative inexperience in a role.
      • A perceived belief that they take their job less seriously, which may lead to them being overlooked for promotion.
      • A failure to receive increases in remuneration because co-workers who are older and have families are considered to be in greater "need" of increased pay.
  • Middle aged workers may experience discrimination arising from:
      • A perception that they lack the seniority and experience of older workers but don't have the "fresh ideas" of young staff.
      • Company events being held at times when staff with young families may struggle to attend.
  • Older workers may experience age discrimination due to:
      • A perception that they do not understand or cannot keep up with new technologies.
      • Their ideas being dismissed as being "outdated" or "old fashioned".

Legislation governing age discrimination

The applicable Australian legislation is the Age Discrimination Act 2004, which ensures discrimination is against the law, including in employment, accommodation, service provision or education.

However, it is important to remember that in certain circumstances it is lawful and may even be appropriate to treat people of different ages differently. These include:

  • When required to do so by state or Commonwealth law (for example, superannuation funds not being permitted to release money until members have reached a certain age).
  • Complying with certain health and employment programs.
  • Paying staff in accordance with youth agreements and awards.

Similarly, if somebody's age prevents them from performing the inherent requirements of the job they have applied for, it is not discrimination to refuse that employment. For example, if somebody under the age of 18 applies for a job in a bar then it is obviously not discrimination to refuse them employment.

What to do if you're experiencing age discrimination

As an employee, if you feel that you are experiencing age discrimination, you can either elect to take up any complaint internally (through the organisation's usual complaints procedures) or by making a written complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission. Once received, the complaint can be investigated, and attempts made to resolve it via conciliation.

Alternatively, a final option could be to pursue a complaint through the Federal Court of Australia or the Federal Circuit Court.

What can workplaces do to help prevent age discrimination

Having strong policies in place to ensure that all staff are treated equally regardless of their age is one of the key factors in preventing age discrimination.

Providing equal access to training opportunities for all employees and offering flexibility around hours regardless of life stage can also help fight discrimination.

If you need help with age discrimination workplace policies and procedures, or if you have a question about age discrimination that you'd like to discuss, contact WISE today for support and guidance.

When Workplace Relationships Go Wrong

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Given how much time employees spend at work every week, it is hardly surprising that romantic relationships develop in the workplace. 

But what happens when a romance is inappropriate, or attraction crosses the line into sexual harassment?

inappropriate vs unlawful

While there is nothing illegal about a workplace relationship between two consenting adults, in some circumstances it can be inappropriate, for example a romance between a manager and a subordinate. 

There is also a significant difference between mutual and enacted sexual attraction, and unlawful conduct such as unwanted sexual advances, sexual harassment or even abuse or assault. Sexual harassment is unlawful under both the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) and Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic). Sexual abuse and/or assault is a criminal offence.

the issues and consequences

Workplace relationships can become problematic, particularly in situations where a relationship involves two employees, one of whom oversees the other's performance, management or appraisal. 

Other co-workers may feel aggrieved by a real or perceived bias involving any decisions made by the more senior worker involved in the relationship. Team morale can suffer if one member is seen to be treated more favourably than the rest when it comes to performance appraisals, the allocation of work and promotional opportunities. 

Partly for this reason, employers may be tempted to dismiss employees who have not disclosed the nature of their romantic relationships. The legality of any such dismissal is questionable - however, previous decisions of the Fair Work Commission have suggested that employees may be dismissed in cases where employees are untruthful when they are challenged about the existence of workplace relationships. 

Employees may also make unwanted advances to other employees, as a result of innocently misinterpreting signs of perceived sexual interest. While there's nothing wrong with a co-worker asking a colleague out on a date or making an advance, there is a problem if the 'advancer' fails to accept and move on from any rebuff. 

The potential for negative fallout when a relationship ends is also a key concern for most employers. This is particularly the case if one party wants the relationship to continue while the other party wants to move on - ongoing attention may tip over into sexual harassment. 

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, sexual harassment is 'any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour, which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated. Sexual harassment is not interaction, flirtation or friendship which is mutual or consensual'.

From an employer's perspective, if sexual misconduct occurs in the workplace (or at employer-sanctioned events such as Christmas parties or other functions) then the business may well be vicariously liable.

There is certainly potential for litigation or unwanted media attention and brand damage as a consequence of sexual misconduct or an inappropriate relationship.    

what can an employer do to minimise the fallout? 

From a risk mitigation perspective, employers should ensure that they have adequately drafted and communicated workplace policies.

At a minimum, these policies should include: 

  • Clear guidelines on the permissibility of relationships between co-workers and when such relationships should be disclosed; 
  • Procedures for what should happen when such a relationship is disclosed, for example when a change in reporting structure is required;
  • A clause addressing conflict of interest and perceived bias (especially when relationships occur between senior and junior staff);
  • A clause defining sexual misconduct, highlighting the definition of sexual harassment and what kind of behaviour will not be tolerated in the workplace. 
  • Workplace policies that promote awareness of all gender related issues, including sexual harassment. 

It is common for relationships and attractions to develop in the workplace. As an employer, it is important to ensure that these circumstances do not lead to incidents of sexual harassment or perceptions of conflict of interest. 

Employers should ensure that they address all complaints of sexual harassment with care. If you have had complaints regarding sexual harassment, or are concerned about potential bias, WISE provides full and supported investigation services