A new generation refuses to keep quiet on age discrimination at work

After business executive Louise McCabe won a high-profile employment tribunal case for age discrimination and whistleblowing she found herself being contacted by people from all over the world sharing similar stories.

McCabe, 57, was awarded £125,604 compensation including £20,000 for injury to feelings after winning her case against Selazar, an ecommerce fulfilment service platform where she was a director. The judge found that the company had unfairly dismissed her and subjected her to discrimination for age and for raising whistleblowing disclosures about the treatment of other staff.

The tribunal ruling noted that a senior manager told McCabe in a meeting: “Calm down . . . don’t let the hormones get out of control”, and that the manager “viewed her as a menopausal — that is; an older woman”. It concluded that part of the reason for her dismissal was her age.

McCabe, who now runs an accountancy business, says that since winning the case people had been in contact, “sharing their stories with me and thanking me for having the courage to stand up about it”.

She says that many of those messaging her mention that they have been whistleblowers. And she believes their status as older workers may have something to do with that: “A lot of people didn’t get as far as taking legal action but I have no idea what the average age of a whistleblower is. Age and experience comes with getting older and also having this feeling — knowing that something is not right.”

Selazar said: “While we still dispute the claimant’s version of events, we also respect that the tribunal has come to a decision which now draws a line under the matter. Selazar is an inclusive and welcoming company strongly committed to gender and age diversity.”

McCabe’s employment tribunal case and others like it underline that even though employers are now taking active steps to improve the diversity of their workforce and to combat discrimination in other areas such as gender and race — older workers still suffer discrimination in the workplace.

Stuart Lewis, chief executive of Rest Less, a digital community and advocacy group for the over-50s, points out: “Age discrimination is very widespread and people talk about age as the last socially acceptable form of prejudice. Language we would not dream of hearing about ethnicity or gender is routinely used about age.”

Many campaigners believe that employers and the UK government need to step up and improve training and career opportunities for older workers as well as crack down on age discrimination in the workplace and in recruitment.

There has been an exodus of people aged over 50 leaving the workplace — sometimes not voluntarily. The employment tribunal in England and Wales recorded 15,366 age discrimination case receipts in the financial year 2020-2021 — the highest annual figure since 2007-2008 and the most recent annual total available.

A report published in December by the House of Lords economic affairs committee titled Where Have All the Workers Gone? said that in August-October 2022 there were 8,935,000 economically inactive 16 to 64-year-olds in the UK — 565,000 more than at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. The report also noted that nearly 1mn people were made redundant during the pandemic in 2020 — including many over-50s — compared with fewer than 500,000 in normal times.

Research published by the Office for National Statistics in September 2022 found adults aged between 50 and 54 were more likely to leave work due to stress and not feeling supported in their job than those aged 60 to 65 years who were more likely to retire.

But companies too often fail to give training and career opportunities to older workers. Rachel Sunderland, 59, a knitwear designer who has worked in the fashion industry for more than 30 years, last year won an employment tribunal against retailer Superdry for claims of unfair dismissal and age discrimination and was awarded £84,723 compensation. The employment tribunal ruling described Sunderland, who joined Superdry in 2015 and resigned in July 2020, as an “excellent knitwear designer” but noted she was passed over for promotion to senior designer despite her experience.

The tribunal noted that managers had assessed Sunderland’s risk of jumping ship to a competitor as low. “We consider that older members of staff are likely to have a perceived lower flight risk,” the ruling said, adding that managers decided not to promote her “because she was an excellent designer on whom they could rely to create products that would sell well, and because they judged that there was little risk of her leaving the business no matter how she was treated. We find they probably thought this in significant measure because of her age.”

Sunderland says she was determined to fight her tribunal case: “I thought it doesn’t matter what my sales are like and how much of my time I have given to the company. I’m not valued in the same way as the younger designers.”

Peter Holt, of Holt HR Consulting, Sunderland’s representative at the tribunal, said that her case showed that despite employment protections, even high performers in the workplace could be treated badly because of their age. He said some older workers may question: “Do I want to go back into the workplace . . . if I find I’m being treated badly and suffer humiliation?”

Superdry said it was committed to equality for all employees. “While we feel the tribunal’s judgment did not reflect our culture and values, we respect its decision. We appreciate it having conducted such a thorough review and have been focused on reviewing its findings,” the company said in a statement.

Tony Shiret, 66, a retail analyst with Panmure Gordon, who has been nicknamed the “godfather of retail”, won an age discrimination case in 2013 against his former employer Credit Suisse. He was made redundant in 2011 at the age of 55 after 18 years at the bank.

The employment tribunal found that because of his age Shiret was seen as “having no potential, despite his excellent skills and unrivalled contacts” and emails between his managers had discussed “knifing Tony” and said he “isn’t going to be around for ever”.

Today, a decade later, Shiret is still as busy as ever working as an equities analyst covering retailers. “I suppose it shows not much has changed if we are still talking about my case 11 years later,” he says. “What matters most is ability rather than age.”

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Bringing an age discrimination claim to an employment tribunal is not for the fainthearted. Many cases drag on for years and cost thousands of pounds in legal fees. Some litigants describe the process as “almost like psychological warfare” and many age discrimination claims brought to tribunals fail.

Ros Altmann, a former pensions minister and business champion for older workers, believes little has changed since she wrote a 2015 government-commissioned report A New Vision for Older Workers, which suggested government and employers should “retain, retrain and recruit” older workers and look at options such as apprenticeships and flexible working, where staff can combine work with caring responsibilities.

Her report also highlighted the need for employer support for women through the menopause and warned that if the over-50s continued to leave the workforce “we would suffer serious labour and skills shortages, which simply could not be filled by immigration alone”.

Altmann now says age discrimination remains “widespread” in the recruitment industry and human resources departments.

McCabe suggests strengthening support for whistleblowers as well as offering additional support for older staff to set up their own businesses or help with mentoring and coaching.

She says: “I am not sure how the government could help encourage the older workforce back. The friends that I have spoken to and the people who have reached out to me have come from all walks of life. They are echoing the feelings that I also have — which is once what we have to offer has been fully extracted and utilised, we are cast aside — often at considerable financial and mental cost to ourselves.”

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