“The ideal age for a CIO? Probably around 40.” Hands up if you agree with the CIO who is the source of this sentiment.

For that reason we have disguised the identity of the speaker, who we do not want to get into any trouble with the new Employment Equality (Age) Regulations. A salutary warning: many of the lawyers MIS UK consulted for this article, referenced a notorious case under the parallel race relations legislation, where an individual sent in two CVs, one with his real name and one with an Anglicised one. The firms who only invited him in for interview as ‘John Smith’ were slapped immediately with a lawsuit. It does not take a genius to work out it would be just as easy to pull the same scam with two resumés, one of which had 10 years less experience detailed.

By the same token think of all those loaded terms – ‘dynamic,’ for which read ‘young,’ – which we use to indicate that the sort of IT workplace we want to encourage has more Xbox chat than pension comparisons. Or the suspicion that over a certain age you just cannot cut it any more.

A young industry

“The IT industry has a bit of a reputation for thinking that people are over the hill at 40,” says James Carmody, principal at Reculver Solicitors, who cautions employers to be much more flexible about considering applicants with a range of experience to avoid any such trouble.

“Some IT professionals specialise in a programming language which, say, falls out of use. But if an IT worker wants to get a new job learning a new programming language, employers have to disregard perceptions of age and concentrate on the actual skills and or the proven track record of the employee – not the ‘dead’ language aspect.”

"Surely the bigger issue here is for business in general, not just IT, and that’s how the individual’s contribution is best measured and how we measure people’s willingness to learn and adapt"

Carl Hillsman, CIO, Allegis Group

Ruth Rosenthal, IT director of UK charity Age Concern England, has a starker view. “40 is ‘the new 70’ in IT,” she declares. “This is a very ageist sector. We are always being asked for ‘two to three years experience’ but when I want someone with gravitas I want someone with more like 10 to 15. The new legislation is a wake up call we have long needed. This is at least as big an issue for us as sexism and the problem deserves just as high a profile.”

Rosenthal has been so disillusioned with what she says is inherent age bias in the recruitment industry she has stopped using such agencies. “We hire through the internet now and have appointed really excellent people, all of them in their late 40s, who we wouldn’t have been forwarded otherwise. Managers have to be brave enough to start challenging these assumptions or we’re going to face real skills shortage issues.”

She is not alone in her views but other senior IT people are less convinced it is as black and white as that. Carl Hillsman is CIO at the Allegis Group, a specialist human capital management firm: for him, the picture is much more mixed. “Look at the age mixture of heads of IT across the sector and you’ll see a wide variety of ages,” he told MIS UK. “What we mean when we talk about ‘two to three years experience’ is really entry level but I have seen plenty of talk about ’10 years plus’ experience for more senior or specific skill set oriented roles. Surely the bigger issue here is for business in general, not just IT, and that’s how the individual’s contribution is best measured and how we measure people’s willingness to learn and adapt. No one wants to preclude people on age, we want to find individuals who want to grow, that’s all. A healthy mix of age and skill is the answer.”

Employers’ guidelines

The Employment Equality (Age) Regulations will come into force at the start of October 2006, making discrimination on the grounds of age unlawful. The main points of the new law are that age related discrimination and harassment is outlawed and employees will have the right to request to work beyond the default retirement age of 65. They will also have the right to claim unfair dismissal beyond normal retirement age.

There is a ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ aspect. Direct ageist discrimination will be to treat a person less favourably by reason of that person’s age. For instance, putting in a job advert you want applications only from people aged between 25 and 35 will be unlawful for the bulk of occupations. However, asking for someone’s date of birth on an application form will be lawful as long as you can justify the reason for asking for it, for example to establish the normal retirement date. References to a ‘young and vibrant’ environment in a job advert are likely to be held as age discriminatory. Indirect discrimination would include a job advert asking for applicants with between three and seven years – excluding people with over seven years experience. Also, do not turn people down due to ‘lack of flexibility’ if that assumption is made on the basis of the applicant’s age, since this will also be discriminatory.

Employers should try to:

  • Develop recruiting and sourcing procedures that include mature workers
  • Retain valued employees for longer by developing alternative work arrangements to retain critical intellectual property within the organisation
  • Provide opportunities for workers to continually update their skills
  • Ensure technology effectively supports the needs of older, as well as younger, staff

Pace of change

IT is cyclical as well,” points out Martin Joy, CIO of Control Risks, a professional services firm that specialises in risk management and security. “After a time – no matter how expert – one technology’s relevance fades and you have to move on. It’s really about the right person for the right job and I hire on people’s willingness to learn, not if they are over 50 or not. There’s also no strict correlation between age and salary in IT, so I don’t think older people are discriminated against automatically because they are assumed to be on bigger salaries than the 25-year-old.”

Again, these are sentiments most of us would wholeheartedly endorse. However IT leaders need to be working with their HR peers to introduce enough transparency to banish any accusations of unfavourable treatment of staff due to the number of rings in their trunks, as it were.

The right tone

Freda Line, head of employer relations at the Employers’ Forum on Age organisation, advises careful wording of job advertisements and monitoring of the recruitment process.

“I suspect that, if there aren’t direct language barriers in many IT job adverts, that the language is pretty specific,” she says. “But companies also have to think about whether they’ve briefed their IT recruitment agents to provide evidence of bias-free processes too. With the rise in online recruitment, there’s nothing to stop someone who feels they’ve been discriminated against re-submitting the same application with key dates changed. The company could be held liable as well as the recruitment agent.”

Danielle Kingdom, employee partner at international law firm Osborne Clark, concurs: “I would advise companies to create a paper trail that makes it clear, through direct and detailed instructions, that you expect the third party or agent to act within the new law.”

An old solution to a new problem of staff shortages

Recruitment and retention problems are perennial issues for IT departments. In July, the British Computer Society published a report called Developing the Future, highlighting the fact that the number of people choosing to enter the UK technology industry had hit its lowest level for over a decade.

The report says UK applicants for degree courses in computer science, engineering, information systems and software engineering have sunk to pre-1996 levels. For computer science alone, the UK is producing fewer than 20,000 graduates a year and the number of applicants for such degrees has halved since 2001.

Taken in the context of the new legislation, it may pay for CIOs to fill their ranks with, or invest in, older workers to mitigate the lack of young talent entering the industry.

The fact that the baby boomer generation is beginning to retire adds to the need to retain and reskill existing, more mature IT personnel.

In this way, companies get to retain their intellectual property and foster its transfer to newcomers.

But maintaining an effective working relationship with older workers means making options other than early retirement seem attractive, with a focus on training, career planning and performance appraisal.

There is a danger that older employees may be overlooked within an organisation. They are not always associated with words like ‘ambition’ and ‘development’ and can be left to tread water when it comes to career progression. Mary Sue Rogers leads the global human capital management business for IBM and urges CIOs to focus on making their organisation a good place to work for staff of all ages. “Older people that have been in a business longer tend to have better business acumen and can run a project tighter,” Rogers says.

“Organisations need to create opportunities for these people to manage the IT through extended roles that may deal with the customer, or an outsourcer for example. A younger person may not be so interested in the business side of things, preferring instead to concentrate on pure technology and innovation.”

She adds: “Organisations also have a duty of care to consider those aged over 65. CIOs have to think about creating an environment that encourages age diversity.

“For instance, having monitors that are big enough to display enlarged font sizes or realising some older workers may not want to use fiddly, handheld devices.”

Rogers also urges companies to think about how the legislation affects their business model as well. She suggests targeting older workers could be beneficial to the bottom-line as well as with the new age regulator.

Rogers cites US banking firm, Westpac, as an example of the use of mature workers to address the needs of older customers.

She says Noel Purcell, Westpac’s group general manager, noted these older workers became an important asset for generating additional revenue because they related well with older customers, who sometimes felt that younger staff were not experienced enough to address their financial concerns.

Another approach would be to make flexible, part-time working available to retirees, like IBM’s own ‘Blue Reserve’ initiative.

Retiring workers can opt to go into a global talent pool to mentor or advise on projects outside their traditional areas. And reverse mentoring can, in turn, help these mature staff stay on top of new technologies and continue to be of value to the business.

Monitoring recruitment

So, if age should no longer form the basis of any criteria for selection, Line also warns that many automated recruitment filtering systems may use key dates as well as words to filter a large number of responses to a vacancy down to a manageable number for the HR or recruitment teams.

You need to be able to monitor age but without identifying the candidates or employees it refers to,” she says.

“Systems should be sophisticated enough to know what triggers people to drop out of the application process, for example. It may be that 30 per cent of those viewing a job online drop out at the third question say, and that a high percentage of those were over 30, for instance. It should also be possible to provide age profiles of the people they interview but don’t recruit and those they recruit and promote.”

The CIO’s role

Many CIOs may be unaware that there is much for them to do to comply with the new legislation, primarily readying the information systems and policies they manage. “CIOs will need to review all those IT systems and processes they are responsible for, to comply with the new legislation,” says Kingdom.

“While I’m sure nothing lurks in them that is inherently discriminatory, there might well be things that are indirectly so. And the balance of proof will be on the employer to prove any discrimination charge as untrue.”

"The new legislation is a wake up call we have long needed. This is at least as big an issue for us as sexism and the problem deserves just as high a profile"

Ruth Rosenthal, IT director, Age Concern

To achieve a better view of the age profile of an organisation, it is going to be essential that HR and legal departments sit down with the IT department to get the best out of this new compliance and diversity driver. “It is of critical importance for the management and measurement of information that HR uses that IT really supports very sophisticated payroll, absence, service-related and performance management employee packages,” says Line.

For instance, if your company mandates that all job applicants have to undergo a health and fitness assessment designed to filter applicants who do not attain a certain level of fitness, then you need to be beware.

This requirement will adversely affect a greater proportion of older applicants – which is fine if you’re hiring a sports instructor or a fireman but not for someone employed to sit behind a desk tapping away at a computer.

"Surely the bigger issue here is for business in general, not just IT, and that’s how the individual’s contribution is best measured and how we measure people’s willingness to learn and adapt"

Carl Hillsman, CIO, Allegis Group

Discriminatory tests

A more likely impact of the new law will be change to benefits. If an employer only offers ‘death in service’ benefits to employees subject to passing a health test or on the basis of age, this may well be held as discriminatory unless it can be objectively justified. And of course selection for redundancy on the grounds of proximity to retirement age is also going to raise red flags.

You could potentially also be affected by refusing to be ageist. Your CEO tells you as CIO to make sure you do not employ any ‘wrinklies’. You refuse to discriminate by reason of age and are negatively affected as a result. Well, say the lawyers, this would be unlawful under the regulations and could help you mount a lawsuit to fight your corner.

Still not convinced? Try this: “Potentially any of us could be impacted by this legislation as, unlike other forms of discrimination, we are all part of the age ‘continuum,’” says Robyn McIlroy, senior associate at law firm Pinsent Masons. “Not enough employers are thinking how this could affect them.”

The advice is to research the topic using resources like the DTI and ACAS websites to ensure your employment and promotion policies will meet the new requirements.

On the internet, they say, no one knows you’re a dog. In IT, we hope, no one will prejudge how many new tricks that old dog can learn.