You are using an outdated browser. Please upgrade your browser to improve your experience.

Ageism in the workplace and how to deal with it

Last updated 18th August 2023
4 min read

While workers of all ages have something valuable to offer, people may experience different treatment from their colleagues or employer based on their age.

Whether unintentionally or deliberately, ageism in the workplace is unfortunately a common problem that can be distressing.

In this article, we take a look at examples of age discrimination in the workplace, how to avoid it, and what you can do if you find yourself a victim.

Ageism and age discrimination: What are they?

Also known as ageism, age discrimination is when someone is treated unfairly because of their age for a reason that can't be justified.

Both older and younger people can be affected by age discrimination at work. However, with over 50s making up almost a third of the UK workforce[1], older workers are a key focus when it comes to preventing ageism in the workplace.

Whatever age you are, age discrimination in the workplace is against the law in the UK. Here are some signs to help you spot it...

Examples of age discrimination in the workplace

The Equality Act 2010(www.gov.uk opens in a new tab) gives four types of ageism that you're protected against:

Direct discrimination

This is when you’re treated less favourably than other employees because of your age, such as being told by your employer that you are ‘too old’ for a promotion. Direct discrimination is one of the most obvious types of ageism in the workplace.

Indirect discrimination

Indirect age discrimination in the workplace can be harder to spot, and can often be unintentional. For example, if your employer only offers a training course to recent graduates, whether deliberately or not, this could exclude older members of the workforce.

Harassment

Harassment of any kind can be scary, upsetting or humiliating. Unwanted jokes, nicknames and offensive comments from colleagues or employers about your age are classed as age-related harassment.

Victimisation

Victimisation is when you’re treated unfairly as a result of making a complaint about discrimination, or providing evidence to support someone else’s complaint. This could include not being given a promotion, pay rise or other opportunity that you were entitled to.

Fear of victimisation is one of the reasons people sometimes don't want to report experiences of ageism in the workplace.

How to prevent age discrimination in the workplace

Whether or not you're directly affected by it, you can help to tackle conscious and unconscious age bias in your place of work.

Be aware of the signs of ageism

By familiarising yourself with the signs of workplace ageism, you can better spot instances of discrimination towards you or those around you.

Indirect ageism is the most difficult one to spot, as it may seem like a benefit or perk that you simply don’t qualify for. For example, only offering training opportunities to junior members of staff means that older employees may be left out.

Watch out for subtle comments

Try to be aware of how people speak to each other. Even if comments aren't meant to be hurtful, they can often be examples of age-related harassment.

From using nicknames like 'Old John' to chastising an older member of staff for working 'too slowly', a lot of so-called 'banter' can be discriminatory and shouldn't be tolerated.

Pay attention to how you speak to others, and how those around you speak with colleagues of different ages.

Talk to your employer

Talking directly and openly with your employer can be a great way to combat age discrimination in the workplace.

While it can feel awkward to discuss at times, problems can't be solved if they are never addressed.

As well as informing management or HR of any ageist behaviour you’ve seen, you can help them to adopt a culture of change. In the long run, this should improve the working environment for everyone, whatever their age.

Ask for training

Just as younger workers can be biased against their older colleagues, older employees may also have unfair biases about junior team members.

Learning to recognise your own thinking patterns and challenge any biases is important.

Whether you’ve noticed ageism in your own behaviour or someone else’s, asking for age-sensitive diversity training can help you to show growth and dedication, while supporting an inclusive workplace.

What should I do if I've been a victim of ageism in the workplace?

If you've been a victim of age discrimination in the workplace, the first step is to try to solve the problem informally.

This may mean talking to the person responsible for the discrimination, a manager, or an HR representative. It might also involve filing a formal workplace dispute or complaint.

Where a friendly agreement can’t be made, or if the ageist behaviour carries on, you can contact Acas(www.acas.org.uk opens in a new tab) or Citizens Advice(www.citizensadvice.org.uk opens in a new tab). They’ll discuss the matter with you and advise you on your rights and next steps.

You may choose to make a claim to an employment tribunal(www.gov.uk opens in a new tab), which will involve presenting your case at a tribunal hearing. If successful, the tribunal may order your employer to pay you compensation, cover any expenses you’ve been charged as part of the tribunal, improve your working conditions or, if appropriate, give you your job back.


[1] Centre for Aging Better, 'Work | State of Aging in 2022(ageingbetter.org.uk opens in a new tab)'

The thoughts and opinions expressed in the page are those of the authors, intended to be informative, and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SunLife. See our Terms of Use for more info.