Age Discrimination: Playing Offense

In preparing for a recent presentation I gave on the topic of age discrimination, I uncovered two interesting bits of trivia that may surprise you

1)  Age discrimination IS actually legal in some respects (you can discriminate all you want against people in their teens, twenties, and thirties — you just can’t show bias against folks who are more than 40 years old)

2)  Companies CAN legally ask you about your age or birthday in the interview (it’s just immensely frowned upon by attorneys and HR departments, since it can be used to support claims of discrimination)

Surprised a bit, especially by the second one?  I was, too, since these realities fly in the face of much of the conventional wisdom I’ve heard on these subjects over the years.

This being said, age discrimination is definitely an issue that many out-of-work Americans continue to be highly concerned about, including a healthy percentage of my client base.  Time and time again, I encounter folks who tell me that they have repeatedly missed out on interviews and offers for jobs they felt they were well-qualified for — and in these cases, they naturally wonder how much of a role, if any, age played a role in the decision.  And the “not knowing” part of this can take a pretty corrosive toll on the person’s confidence, from what I’ve witnessed.

So what’s my take on this phenomenon and the true level of impact it has today?  While I don’t always attract admirers for saying so, I’ve written about the subject a number of times in the past and have suggested that a certain percentage of what appears to be age discrimination on the surface is, in my opinion, more likely to be “experience” discrimination.  See my past article here for an explanation of this distinction.  While I know it’s a fine line, many of the employers I talk to (including those I feel would truly be honest about the issue) say that they will frequently pass on older candidates not because of their age, per se, but because the level of the job appears to be well below the level of position the candidate has held previously.  As a result, they worry that the highly experienced candidate (whether this person is 32, 52, or 72 years old) will be bored, unchallenged, and not very happy in the role in question — and/or be at high risk of jumping ship for a better assignment elsewhere.

Is this notion of “being overqualified” the exact same thing in your book as age discrimination?  If so, I probably won’t be able to convince you otherwise, but I truly believe there’s an important distinction to be made here and that older professionals need to be aware of these two subtly different situations they may encounter.

At any rate, these small nuances aside, I do my best to continue recommending ways that older job hunters today can try to sidestep or neutralize whatever overt discrimination may exist out there.  Along those lines, in the recent event I mentioned above, we focused on the idea that many older candidates don’t concentrate as much as they could on how to actually sell their age and experience as a valuable asset — instead of getting defensive about the issue or trying to hide their experience as if it were a shameful liability.  By way of example, when somebody complains about age discrimination, I’ll often ask them point-blank “why are your 20 years of experience any more valuable to me, as an employer, than somebody who has only worked for a few years in the field?”

I’ll be honest.  I don’t usually get a very good answer back.

So here’s what we came up in terms of some of the advantages, benefits, and “added value” elements that an older candidate might be able to showcase:

• Greater adaptability, having experienced more work cultures/bosses/environments
• More political prowess; better at “playing the game” and navigating interpersonal issues
• Deeper self-knowledge and self-awareness; clearer about their strengths and weaknesses
• Higher success rate, having experienced more failures, mistakes, and lessons learned
• Stronger work ethic and corporate loyalty, based on generational norms/expectations
• Longer, more consistent track record; not just a “one-hit wonder” or someone who got lucky
• More loyalty and stability; less likely to be seeking to climb the ladder or jump ship
• Possibly more mobile or willing to travel, due to children being grown and out of the house
• Able to work more smartly and be more efficient based on deeper pool of experience
• Likely to have larger network of relevant, valuable personal and professional relationships
• Mentoring skills; able to groom next generation and aid with succession planning efforts
• Emotional maturity; calmer under pressure and less likely to panic when things go south
• Able to connect well with older audiences/customers if a company targets that demographic

Hope some of these ideas are useful to you, if you’re worried about this issue, and please feel free to chime in with a comment if you think of any items I missed!

Stay tuned, too, and in the coming days, I’ll be writing another post focused on “playing defense” and some of the additional steps that an older worker can take to decrease any age-related perceptions that may be working against them in the hiring process…

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12 Responses to “Age Discrimination: Playing Offense”

  1. Hi Matt,

    Excellent article! Fortunately I’ve not let age bias be a limitation. Rather I’ve directed my career path where more experience is an attribute. That’s why I’ve focused on consulting and project management. I turn 67 next month and plan to work another 4 years and don’t anticipate being limited on opportunities.

    Kent Byers

  2. Matt – great article and a great checklist. Re. the “age vs. experience” question, I’d suggest that pay levels also play into the equation? Workers with years of good work experience often are higher-paid. Higher pay creates a greater hiring risk to a new company, narrows the number of positions into which a worker would fit, and necessitates a broader span of influence/impact than other new hires. With higher pay, you better have positive impact from day 1!

    Earlier in my career, after fortunate education and work experience, I pictured myself as a ‘strong potential’ person – a smart adaptable person who could do a lot of good things for a lot of companies. I think many employers have needs for such people. As I got older, more experienced, and achieved higher pay, however, I came to the realization that I could no longer hold myself out as ‘raw materials’ – I now had to be a ‘finished good’. This meant that the possible job opportunities for which I would qualify would be much fewer.

    Re. your punchlist, I’d suggest the following (these overlap with your excellent points above):
    • Strong judgment about how high-performing companies look, operate and develop – I could help you build a great company because I’ve seen them, been in them, helped to create them
    • Ability to mentor the next generation of leaders, and/or build a high-performing team via new hires if required
    • Ability to solve difficult business problems. Companies are most likely to hire experienced workers when they are facing a difficult situation. They want to hire someone who has been there and done that, and can help them get past their current difficulties.

  3. Great article Matt! I think that your showcase list at the end of the article is valuable to all people who are over 40, 50, and even 60 whether they are working or not. For those that are working, it serves as a reminder of why you are valuable to an organization. For folks like me who are entrepreneurial, it serves as a reminder to ME of why I am a valuable consultant to companies. And, as you point out, for those that aren’t working, it gives you ammunition to prepare for that all important interview. Thank you, Matt, for putting your ideas out there – I hope it sparks many great conversations!

  4. Hi Matt,
    Thanks for sharing this blog and for talking with me the other day. I have pondered long and hard on this very subject. I think that your advice is wise regarding what the highly experienced professional brings to an employer or client.
    My greatest desire is pass along my experience and skills to the next generation. Nearly everything that I have learned I credit to my father, mentors and merely being at the right place/right time. It has taken me a long time to realize that they are not mine to keep.

  5. Jay: Thanks for chiming in. Where I think the logic in your argument is a bit flawed, however, is that you’re pre-supposing a negative outcome. Sure, if an older worker DOESN’T get a particular job offer, they probably don’t care all that much whether the reason is due to outright age bias or the “experience discrimination” (aka overqualified) factor. But in terms of how they approach the issue, from the outset, I think distinguishing between “age discrimination” and “experience discrimination” is critical. If they assume an employer is reluctant to hire them based on their age alone, which is a factor completely outside of their control, then they’re going to have the sense there’s nothing they can do, whatsoever, to improve their odds of success. If instead they embrace the notion that the majority of employers (again, in my experience) are more worried about the fact that they simply have many more years of experience than the job seems to require, they can take active steps such as the ones suggested in my article — as well as the ones you suggest — to change this perception and neutralize it. Not a massive distinction, perhaps, but I think it’s an important one in communicating to older candidates that they’re not completely and utterly helpless in the face of this phenomenon. There are steps they can take (including additional ones I’ll be writing about shortly) to make a positive difference. Which is why, again, I’d encourage older job seekers to think hard about the “key question” I cited in my above article.

  6. Chris: That would be marvelous, wouldn’t it? And every now and then, you see glimmers of this mentality emerging, such as if you Google “reverse mentoring” and read about some of the new types of mentoring relationships taking place that aren’t directly based on years of experience — or certain industries, like health care and public utilities, that are attempting to bring the smarts/skills of retired workers back into the fold. As I think most of us would admit, however, the chances of a “major revolution” happening along these lines in the near future is pretty unlikely. So for now, I think it’s important for older job hunters to embrace the realities out there and get clear on the best techniques for overcoming them.

  7. Matt,
    Thank you so much for the strong points of an older worker. I needed that!

  8. What if there was age appreciation in our society? One that’s a continuum from young to old, where the young are in sink with their elder’s wise energies, and the older ones are in sink with the youth’s awe in discovery energy of their developing selves?

    In place of “they-are-so-not-me” there exists a healthy exchange and dialog where every member of our society feels like they are valued for where they are on the age continuum?

    In addition to all the other barriers we have against each other, it looks like now we have age silos that keep us from treasuring with honesty each whole person, no matter their age.

  9. Thanks Matt – as usual your blogs are very informative and useful for everyone who reads them. I particularly like your question that you ask “when somebody complains about age discrimination, I’ll often ask them point-blank “why are your 20 years of experience any more valuable to me, as an employer, than somebody who has only worked for a few years in the field?” Being a business development professional for over 27 years, I have often talked to people about “why would people buy you as a person?” when they complain about discrimination…it is definitely a sensitive topic to address with many opinions and perspectives to take into consideration. It has given me a lot of thought and I am sure it has also done the same for all the folks I sent this link to that are “in transition” in the job space.

  10. Great list of advantages, benefits and added value for older candidates to feature in your latest blog! Really positive. Will be helpful in the next interview.

  11. Separating age discrimination from “too experienced for the role” is akin to distinguishing between pepper and fly specks, IMHO. While high correlation of events is not causation of one event by another, e.g., “I’m sorry, you’re too ([experienced for this role] or [old to fit into a younger group of workers]) so I can’t hire you”, the outcome is the same: no offer.

    Package yourself so that the recruiter who reads the keywords on your resume will say “This candidate stands out! S/he has all of the skills to do the job.”

    Make yourself look younger, however you need to do it. Dress professionally at the interview. Learn the latest tools and knowledge needed to walk the walk. Demonstrate at the interview how you will add to the position: your years of experience (never stated as such) have informed you what to do and what not to do, how to behave with coworkers, how to make presentations, et cetera.

    Final comment: jobhunting has never been easier because of the Internet. You can blast out resumes with a mouse click. Jobhunting has never been harder because “cultural fit” has become so superfluously important.

  12. Matt,

    I came to the same conclusion that age is not the problem but experience. I have got some reaction to resume submissions but am not getting to talk to the hiring manager. I suspect the experience factor has come into play and m now softening the titlels and expereince a little. See if that helps.

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