Employing and supporting older workers

Employment rights of older workers


Employers should fully understand employment rights and the role of equal opportunities, practices, and procedures relating to older workers.

Recent years have seen the introduction of various policy reforms to encourage the participation and retention of older workers in employment.

How to prevent workplace age discrimination

It is generally unlawful for an employer to discriminate on the grounds of age - ie to treat individuals of any age less favourably than others on the grounds of age.


To avoid age discrimination, you should check that your recruitment process is non-discriminatory. For example, aim to place advertisements in publications read by a range of age groups. Also, avoid using terms that imply a particular age group, such as 'mature', 'enthusiastic', 'highly experienced', or 'recent graduate'. See avoid discrimination when recruiting staff.


If you are making employees redundant, you should similarly ensure that you base procedures on business needs rather than age. For example, it could be discriminatory to select employees for redundancy solely based on when they joined your business - 'last in, first out'. See redundancy and lay-offs.

When age discrimination may be lawful

There are limited circumstances when age discrimination can be lawful. To read about age discrimination exceptions and examples, see age discrimination.

Develop age-related work policies

Age discrimination can affect workers of any age. Having an equal opportunities policy that explicitly mentions age could indicate your commitment to the fair treatment of and eliminating discrimination against workers of all ages. See equality and diversity workplace policies.


You should also ensure appropriate training is provided to your managers and staff on workplace discrimination with some focus on age discrimination. This will help to increase awareness of age discrimination and how to minimise it in the workplace.

Understand the rules for retirement

The statutory default retirement age in the UK was abolished in 2011. As a result, if an employer forces an employee to retire once they reach a certain age, that act would be direct age discrimination and is likely to be unlawful unless it can be objectively justified. See retirement ages and procedures.

An employee can retire voluntarily at a time that they choose and beyond their state pension age unless the job has a lawfully justified 'compulsory retirement age'. The reasons for compulsory retirement may include exceptional circumstances such as:

  • the job requires certain physical abilities (eg in the construction industry)
  • the job has an age limit set by law (eg the fire service)

Employers who set compulsory retirement age rules, also known as Employer Justified Retirement Ages (EJRA), must consider whether that retirement age can be objectively justified, for example, in terms of workforce planning, or the health and safety of individual employees, their colleagues, and the public. In addition, an employer will need to demonstrate that the compulsory retirement age is objectively justified; ie that it is a proportionate means of achieving that objective.

See the Equality Commission's guide for employers on age discrimination in Northern Ireland (PDF, 1.53MB).

Provide flexible working arrangements

Older workers may prefer flexible working arrangements. Surveys have shown that over 40% of people aged 55-59 want to reduce their working hours.

Every employee has the statutory right to request flexible working for any reason after 26 weeks of employment. Employees can make one flexible working application every 12 months. A year runs from the date the most recent application was made. If you accept an employee's flexible working request, this will be a permanent change to their contractual terms and conditions unless you agree otherwise.

There are different forms of flexible working, for example, homeworking, temporary contracts, part-time, flexitime, or job sharing. Employers should ensure the equal promotion of flexible working to staff of all ages. Develop clear procedures and criteria for how to apply for flexible working. See flexible working: the law and best practice.

Caring for grandchildren and dependants: rights at work

Apart from the right to request flexible working arrangements, outlined above, under employment law in Northern Ireland grandparents, generally, have no other statutory rights to paid or unpaid time off to care for their grandchildren.

Grandparents may have the right to parental leave in limited circumstances if they have adopted the child or have a residence order made in their favour giving them parental responsibility. Employees must have one year's employment service and parental leave can be taken up to the child is aged 18. See parental leave entitlement.

All employees have the right to reasonable time off for dependants to deal with emergencies or unforeseen matters involving someone who depends on them for caring responsibilities. This could be to deal with a breakdown in childcare or if a child falls ill. It could also be used to deal with caring responsibilities for older relatives or parents who may be ill. Employers do not have to pay for this time off, but some employers may under the terms and conditions of employment. See time off to deal with emergencies involving dependants.