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The Psychometrics Centre

Cambridge Judge Business School

The law on age discrimination in organisations came into effect on 1st October. It joins legislation on gender, ethnicity, disability, religious belief and sexual orientation and, like these, applies to how people are treated by a variety of organisations when they apply for a job or are in employment.

This legislation highlights the issue of fair measurement in the recruitment and management of staff. In particular it will force employers to rethink their job requirements if these include a university degree or 'A' levels.

What is Age Discrimination?

Using the CIPD definition as a basis, age discrimination means "treating someone less favourably because of his or her age, then basing prejudice against and unfair treatment of that person on their age". This applies whether employers are dealing with people of any age. Much discussion has focussed on reducing discrimination against older people, but employers can discriminate against the young as well.  The implications of the legislation go much further than most employers realise, and their widespread lack of readiness is expected to prompt numerous claims.

Age Discrimination and Qualifications

The demand of a degree from a job applicant may be discriminatory as middle-aged and older people are less likely to have this qualification.  Five per cent of young people obtained a degree 40 years ago compared with about 40 per cent now.  The stipulation that a degree must be in a specific subject may also be a problem as today there are many more subjects to study at university.

Even the requirement that candidates should have 'A' level qualifications may be open to challenge.  Psychology, for example, is one of the most popular subjects today, but 20 years or so ago it didn't exist.  Many more students gain 'A' levels than hitherto.  The possible reasons do not matter, because as long as 'adverse impact' (under-representation of older candidates in the selected sample) is a consequence, a case of discrimination could be claimed.

How can psychometrics help employers to cope?

Where adverse impact is an issue, psychometric tests present a much safer alternative to qualifications because the competencies being tested can be tailored to the job. Psychometric tests and assessments provide objective measures of candidates' qualties without entering the minefield of qualifications and the 'age-loaded' language often seen in job specifications and advertising. They provide audit evidence to defend your decisions. However, the legislation raises issues which any responsible test user must bear in mind.

  • Numerical, verbal or other tests may depend heavily on the sort of cognitive skills that decrease with age (such as memory). These may be discriminatory. However, it may be possible to balance these with tests that are more geared up towards things that increase with age, like wisdom.
  • Psychometric tests compare a candidate's results with those of others in a norm group.  If a sufficient number of older or younger people were not included in the norm sample, then the tests might be biased against a particular age group.  While norms constructed by publishers of tests for the past 50 years have ensured enough women and ethnic minority candidates were included in the groups to make the sample representative, not so much attention has been paid to age as this was not previously a legal requirement.
  • Recruitment testing is migrating from paper and pencil to the computer and the internet.  Young people are much more familiar with computers than the old or middle-aged, and thus these IT techniques discriminate against older candidates.  (It could equally be argued that written tests discriminate against young people as they are less used to having to write.)
  • Personality changes with age. Organisations which use personality testing may find they need to take this into account.  Scores on sociability, impulsiveness and agreeability go down with age (the Victor Meldrew effect), while scores on introversion, tough-mindedness, fortitude and fair-mindedness go up.

Age Discrimination and Retirement

It is not only candidates for jobs who will be affected by the new law.  With the abolition of compulsory retirement at age 65 there will be many issues surrounding the suitability of older people to continue working, be it in the same role or another.  Up to now people may have been allowed to 'see out their time' even if no longer fully efficient.  Attitudes to this will change, not only for workers over 65 but for those approaching retirement and the effects could even kick back to the under 60s and beyond.  Hence there will be a demand for clinical assessment and psychometric testing to clarify whether people in work remain suited to it, and to identify other work to which they may be more suited.

The Psychometrics Centre can advise organisations on the acceptability of their procedures in the light of the new Act, advising on how they should change them. The Centre will be carrying out studies into the effects of age on many of the tests currently favoured by employers and HR departments. 

Click here to see the CIPD's summary of the wider HR implications of the new law

To find out more pleas contact us or call +44 (0) 1223 769483 

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