Age discrimination an ongoing issue

 “We thought you’d be younger”, “You wouldn’t be able to handle it, you’re too old” – that’s what job applicants have been told, says Jackie Blue, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner.

The number of workers making a complaint about age discrimination remains steady at around 60 a year but it’s believed to be widely under-reported.

Taking that step might be the last resort for some people but it could be an option if they believe they’ve been unfairly treated.

Jackie Blue by HCR sign

Employers can be quite blunt in what they say to prospective employees, Dr Blue explains.

A woman was informed she wasn't suitable for a job because "we're looking for young, fresh out of uni types".

“There was another instance where a woman was asked if she was over 50 on the job application form. She did declare she was over 50 – she didn’t get either of the jobs she applied for.”

Dr Blue says one man believed he missed out on work because of his age and ethnicity.

“He was also told he was over qualified for the job he applied for and so forth.”

Another was turned down for a job at the age of 63 despite having qualifications and experience with the company.

“Other people with no experience gain permanent roles but all were much younger, while older drivers are always passed over,” he said in his complaint.

Ability the only question

It’s these sorts of examples Dr Blue sees again and again.

“The take home message, I think, is that questions by employers to a future prospective worker should really only be around ability to do the job, and skill.

“They shouldn’t be asking about age unless it’s a pre-requisite like serving alcohol, ie over 18.

“I‘ve looked far and wide – I cannot find an upper limit. I even phoned the agency that looks after pilots and they weren’t able to say there was an upper age limit for pilots.

I know they go through medicals to get medical certificates, and I guess there it would be on the basis of health issues.”

This does not preclude employers from asking questions, says Dr Blue.

“Every employer’s got the right to know the prospective worker can do the job and you can ask questions around their ability to do it.

"And if there’s anything that might stop you from fulfilling all those job requirements, but you cannot ask specifically about health issues or age.”

It‘s not just job applicants affected by age discrimination but those in the workplace, according to a survey run by the Human Rights Commission and the Office for Senior Citizens.

“It’s really hard to prove when you’re applying for a job but it is certainly in the workplace,” says Dr Blue.

“In the survey, it showed that withholding of jobs or promotion was an issue for some workers. They felt like they’d been discriminated against.

“40 per cent either witnessed or had been involved with age discrimination. That was really quite shocking I thought, quite shocking.

“I don't think I'd ever seen that statistic before.”

What is discrimination?

Senior man preforming a stocktake

The Commission says discrimination happens when someone is treated unfairly or less favourably than another person in the same or similar circumstances.

If that happens, Dr Blue says there are a number of steps that can be taken.

“We’d recommend they make a record of incidents that they find offensive or discriminatory.

“They should speak to somebody they trust.

“Thirdly, they should approach the person who’s making those derogatory comments or putting in place those discriminatory practises.

"That could be a bit daunting, particularly if there’s a power imbalance between that person and the worker.”

“So, that could be done through a union rep or a human resources person of an organisation, and we’re very happy to intervene on their behalf and give advice.”

The EEO Commissioner is also concerned about the level of under-reporting.

“Marginalised groups, ie young people, Pacific, Maori, women, disabled people really don't have an understanding of what age discrimination is or how to make a complaint to look out for themselves.”

Dr Blue says they are looking at ways they could get the information across to educate those groups.

She believes attitudes might start changing as the workforce ages.

“Older workers will have the balance of power… and I think those businesses which do not step up and acknowledge that they are a significant sector [in] its own right with power, will lose basically.

Top tips

1. Keep a record of incidents you find offensive

2. Speak to someone you trust

3. Approach the person who's making the discriminatory comments or practices. This can be done via a union representative or a person from Human Resources

4. If no resolution, contact the Human Rights Commission (HRC) for advice

5. HRC will work with you to try and resolve the issue through informal methods, like phoning the other party, giving information or through mediation

6. If a complaint isn’t resolved through HRC processes, you can take your complaint to the Human Rights Review Tribunal. This is an independent judicial body that makes decisions on claims brought before it. It’s administered by the Ministry of Justice and is completely separate from the Human Rights Commission.

7. You may also be able to request free representation from the Office of Human Rights Proceedings to take a case to the Tribunal.

Freephone: 0800 496 877


Text: 0800 496 877