Whether you’re mistaken for the “tea and coffee kid” as a young-looking employee, or considered an “out of touch” older worker, it’s too frequently deemed acceptable to make general assumptions about people in the workplace based on how old they look or are. And that’s how those who return to work after a period of retirement find themselves dealing with ageism.

what is ageism?

Ageism, or age discrimination, is when people are treated unfavourably because of their age.

Luckily, it’s illegal under the Equality Act, which covers the following forms of ageism:

Direct discrimination – when you’re disadvantaged with explicit reference to your age.

Example: You’re refused a promotion or role change because you’re “too old”.

Indirect discrimination – your treatment is influenced by age-based decisions on your employer’s part.

Example: if graduates are offered a training course, older employees are likely to be excluded because of their age.

Victimisation – when you’re penalised for engaging with ageism as an issue and attempting to protect yourself or others from discrimination.

Example: you’re declined an opportunity for which you would normally be a candidate, because you’d supported a colleague’s ageism complaint.

Harassment – jokes or offensive comments made in the workplace about you or the people in your life in relation to your age.

E.g. colleagues mock you because you’re older than your other co-workers but married to someone younger than them.

It can be possible for employers to justify both direct and indirect discrimination, but harassment or victimisation are never defensible. 


There is, however, an exception. If an employee had an age-related health condition, for example, it might make sense to allocate a physically demanding task to a colleague who was younger or more suited to the challenges associated with that particular role. It would be the recommended decision from a health and safety perspective, and the better option in terms of assigning employees to suitable and fulfilling positions.

But the exception certainly doesn’t sanction unregulated age-based discrimination in any way. Following the removal of the default retirement age in 2011, employers can’t force employees to retire either.

how to take action.

If you find yourself encountering direct or indirect discrimination, harassment or victimisation in the workplace, have a look at your employer’s grievance procedure and see whether the problem can be resolved informally, or whether it’ll need a formal investigation.

Otherwise, follow the steps for raising complaints set out by Acas (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service), who also offer expert advice and free guidance in relation to workplace discrimination.

The Equality Advisory and Support Service also offers help with taking the right steps, and adhering to the (sometimes complicated) time frames involved in pursuing a discrimination claim.

And there are positive ways to increase your value as an employee – fighting ageism with innovation and hard work:

Get feedback – seek appraisals from your employers, and then adapt and improve where you can .

Interpret carefully – make sure you fully understand the nature of the discrimination, and check that there aren’t elements of misunderstanding in the conflict, before you take action.

Don’t box yourself in – if you’re capable, conscientious and keen to learn, acknowledge that yourself. It’ll make it harder for others to associate you with prejudiced stereotypes.

Broaden your skillset – make yourself indispensable by jumping at every opportunity to learn and train. The more you contribute, the less your employer will be inclined to reach for the age label.