Switched-on retailers are well used to employing older workers but now new laws on age discrimination will soon force all c-store owners to consider it, as Rich Airey finds out.

From October this year, bosses must consider requests from older employees to work beyond the age of 65. Age discrimination on matters of recruitment, promotion and training will be banned and staff over the age of 65 will have the same rights to redundancy payments as younger workers.

The legislation should ensure a fairer working environment for staff both approaching and past the normal age of retirement. It’s important retailers are clued up to the changes, says Sarah Duchart from HR Response, which offers advice to small and medium-sized businesses. “Retailers should double-check that their business practices are up to date,” she says. “The biggest issues are recruitment selection, training and retirement. One of the major things they need to be aware of is that there must be no age discrimination in job adverts.

“Managers should look at their employee contracts and, if necessary, renew them so there is no mad rush come October,” adds Duchart. “We can help out by providing training for smaller employers who often don’t have the same backing and expertise as larger companies.”

Many c-store owners are more than happy to employ staff beyond the usual retirement age and highlight them as real assets to their business. Ann and David Johnson have run Johnson’s of Sandhurst in Kent for 21 years. They currently employ four members of staff over the age of 65.

David and Ann employ 66-year-old Jean, 69-year-old Carol and 68-year-olds Ron and David. Although they are happy to recruit a broad range of ages and recently took on a 16-year-old, they say their older employees have often proved more worthwhile recruits.

“It’s definitely an advantage taking on older staff,” says Ann. “It’s wrong to say people are too old to work beyond a certain age. From our experience they are often more capable than some of the younger staff whom we’ve employed in the past.”

“All of the older workers we’ve employed have been very reliable, conscientious and honest,” says Ann. “They often have a good understanding of what customers want and automatically treat people the way they would like to be treated themselves.

“I hope the new legislation will give more opportunities to older people. If people want to work beyond the usual retirement age they should be able to. If someone is 100 but still capable I wouldn’t have a problem employing them. Any bosses who don’t think in that way will be missing out.”

Ann also believes older workers are better equipped to deal with attempts by underage teenagers to buy alcohol or cigarettes. “Older staff can often handle the situation better as there is no peer pressure involved,” says Ann. “From our experience younger staff have sometimes been pressurised into being more lenient with checks on people they know.”

David shares his wife’s opinion that their older employees are a real benefit: “We judge people on their value to the business, not their age,” he says. “If anyone of any age will be of value to the business, then we will happily employ them. However, I think that once a person gets to the age of 40, they often have a different work ethic. We’ve had a few youngsters who’ve been fine but unfortunately they have been the exception to the norm. It’s important to find a balance and what we’ve got seems to work well.”

Spar group members Gillett’s, which operates 38 stores in Devon and Cornwall, also takes a pro-active approach to employing older staff. “We have a good mix of ages across all of our stores,” explains HR manager Vanessa Whitting. “Probably one of the best examples is Helen Hockedy, who is still working at the age of 81 at our Pevrell store in Plymouth. We’ve found our older employees are often very reliable and loyal. They really know what work is and are very willing to listen. We’re proud to say we’ve never discriminated against age and a lot of people comment on the age range we employ.”

She adds: “We’ve also just taken on a 60-year-old as post office manager at one of our stores. At first he was a bit worried about what our policy towards retirement might be but we reassured him that he had nothing to worry about, pointing to Helen as an example.”

Helen, who has worked at the store since 1969, told C-Store: “I really enjoy working and will be very sorry if I have to stop. I think older employees often have more patience. Other retailers would definitely benefit from employing people beyond the normal retirement age. At the moment I’m doing about 10 hours a week and will help out with a few more if someone is ill.

“The Gillett family and my managers have always been good to work with. We’ve got a very good team.”

Helen’s manager, Terry Harvey, adds: “Older workers can be a lot more reliable. You’re never worried that they’re not going to turn up for work and they will usually still come in if they’re not feeling 100%. Helen is treated exactly the same as any other member of staff is and she is a very important part of the team here.”

Alan Fincham who runs a Londis store on the Isle of Wight, also looks to employ right across the age spectrum, with no upper age limit. “Ability to do the job should always come first,” says Alan. "The older people I employ have a great deal of retail experience and are extremely valuable to the business. Among my employees I have an ex-supermarket manager who is particularly good at offering me advice on displays and customer service.”

What’s changing?
The new legislation is due to come into force on October 1, 2006

Employers will have to consider requests from their employees to work beyond the age of 65

People aged over 65 will have the same rights to unfair dismissal and redundancy payments as younger workers

Age discrimination in terms of recruitment, promotion and training will be banned

Employers will have to give written notification to employees at least six months in advance of their intended retirement date, allowing people to plan for their retirement

The regulations will not affect the age at which people can claim their state pension.

What to remember
Age Positive - a group set up within the Department for Work and Pensions - heads a campaign to make employers aware of the new legislation. The group provides free information on the benefits of employing a mixed-age workforce and encourages employers to make decisions based on their employees’ skills and merit, rather than age. Representative Steve Billam offers the following advice:

Avoid age cut-offs for promotion and focus instead on skills, abilities and potential

Promote staff on the basis of performance, rather than age

Remove age limits from recruitment adverts and avoid the use of words such as ‘young’ or ‘mature’

Think about where your job adverts can be placed to reach different age groups. Young people are more likely to use careers services, Job Centres and newspapers. Older people may rely more on community and business networks

Offer training and development to employees of all ages. Encourage reluctant older and younger workers by using as role models employees of all age ranges who have previously benefited from training

Base redundancy decisions on objective, job-related criteria. Automatically making workers over a certain age redundant will lead to a loss of key knowledge and skills

Agree a fair and consistent retirement policy with employees. Offer pre-retirement support and, where possible, consider flexible or extended retirement options.

Jean Relf, 66:
“I’m a widow and like to keep occupied, and the money is always useful. I start at 8am some days and work all day on Sundays. I think it’s worth employing older staff as we have more experience of life in general. I really enjoy the work and hope to continue as long as the shop is here. I suppose it’s an advantage that I used to work as the caretaker in the local primary school and have lived in the village for 40 years. I know all the customers very well.”