An employment tribunal (ET) has heard how a 67-year-old classic literature professor was “forced to retire” from his position as an English tutor at St John’s College, Oxford. Professor John Pitcher, who had been employed by the University for thirty-five years, has asked the court to determine whether his former employer’s actions were tantamount to age discrimination
For their part the University have defended their use of an Employment Justified Retirement Age (EJRA) policy to cancel Prof. Pitcher’s employment in 2016, four years before his contract was due to expire. They claim their decision was necessary to increase diversity and promote “intergenerational fairness”.
It remains to be seen how the tribunal judge will rule on this case, however a similar case saw another former Oxford employee successfully challenge this EJRA policy with the Supreme Court. It is likely that the tribunal will use this case as a reference when making their decision and spend some time assessing whether the employer’s actions could be objectively justified.
Since the removal of the default retirement age in 2011 organisations are generally unable to force staff to retire at a certain age. Compulsory retirement is rare and for it to be valid organisations must be able to show that it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim which goes beyond the needs of the business itself. As such most organisations allow staff to choose their own retirement age to avoid costly discrimination claims.
A recent study from the Centre for Ageing Better has revealed that 44% of workers aged 50 and over feel unsupported by their employer. Therefore, organisations would do well to take a considered approach to older workers rather than ignore them. Older employees should be afforded the same opportunities as other workers, including being considered for any available roles and training. Individuals must also not be left out when it comes to appraisal meetings and should receive feedback on their performance in the same way as their younger colleagues.
Older workers must also not be excluded, bullied or otherwise treated unfairly on account of their age given that age is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. This should be considered when drafting workplace policies, particularly around retirement, as Oxford University have shown how this can lead to claims of age discrimination.