Weed out hidden ageist bias in the workplace

Of all the issues raised by Dr Kanwaljit Soin in her commentary, the subject of ageism and discrimination at the workplace remains of key importance today (Towards a society of people who lead longer, productive lives; Feb 22).

In my experience over the past 10 years as a human resource consultant to organisations, as well as a career and executive coach to professionals, managers, executives and technicians impacted by restructuring, I have found that there is clearly a prevalence of age discrimination in the workplace.

This is evident in the form of human resource policies and processes, such as recruitment and compensation that reveal a bias against older employees, a situation which is potentially limiting business performance and preventing older employees from contributing fully.

It appears that ageism may be responsible for the rise in the number of redundancies and the difficulties faced by older Singaporeans trying to re-enter the workforce.

Many perfectly healthy older workers feel they have been forced by circumstances into leaving the labour force.

The prevailing idea that older employees must retire at an arbitrary age in order to provide jobs for younger people must also be re-examined.

If people are able to work longer, society should not discourage them from doing so. The real issue is that older Singaporean have to (and not necessarily want to) work until they are 67 or 70, or beyond.

The reality is that with the costs of living climbing (especially healthcare costs), fewer of us can afford to stop working. Working beyond the traditional retirement age is a necessity and no longer a choice.

Despite living in a place with one of the highest per capita incomes worldwide, many Singaporeans face the very real prospect of their savings running dry almost halfway through retirement because of the high cost of living and greater life expectancy.

Age-discrimination legislation makes it unlawful to treat people unfairly purely and arbitrarily because of their age. Refusal to hire and compulsory retirement must be based on reasons of legitimate, proportionate and, so, legal organisational policy and/or the candidate's or employee's competence or capability.

However, the law does not make it impossible to treat people differently because of age-related issues at work.

Employers should have clear transparent policies stating how unlawful discrimination is avoided in the main areas of people management and development, notably recruitment, training, promotions, discipline and retirement.

Such practices could enhance the organisation's employer branding and also its employee value proposition, which would position it well in terms of recruiting future employees.

Many employers regard the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices as an organisation that simply issues "guidelines" which they do not need to comply with, as it is not a statutory requirement for businesses.

The current reality is that age-discriminatory practices can be hard to detect or deal with, as many ageist attitudes have become institutionalised to the extent that they are deemed acceptable.

Hence, I am of the opinion that age-discrimination laws are necessary for Singapore.

Sattar Bawany (Professor)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 26, 2018, with the headline 'Weed out hidden ageist bias in the workplace'. Print Edition | Subscribe