Unwitting age discrimination as the result of a casual comment

A woman who was told she might be “better suited to a traditional estate agency” was discriminated against because of her age, a tribunal has ruled.

The employee was 59 when the comment was made, which followed her transfer to a second branch of her company. She was criticised for using “outdated” technology and for making errors in typing. She was told that she needed to “update” her ideas and working practices.
When she was told that she would be better suited to a traditional office, she took that to mean that she was too old to work in that particular office. She had intended to stay with the company until she retired at 65.

She became ill with work-related stress and raised a grievance against her line manager who made the comment. Her grievance was upheld, concluding that she should be supported with more training and that the original meeting should not have been carried out in the manner that it was. However the employee felt that more should have been done and claimed age discrimination in the employment tribunal which found that the phrase “better suited to a traditional office” was a reference to her age, noting that it was defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘long established’ and it was unlikely that such a comment would have been made to a younger employee. The tribunal also allowed the claims for harassment related to age and constructive unfair dismissal.

This is a reminder to employers of the risks of using words that could be taken to be a reference to someone’s age. An age discrimination claim can be brought where the comments allude to an employee’s age, even if they do not directly refer to it.

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