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Age Discrimination: The green antidote

Quick Question

age discriminationWe all know age discrimination is not legal. I’m an analytical chemist with a graduate degree and 40 years experience in analytical chemistry. Although I would love to retire and enjoy my grandchildren, I still have the desire (and mental capacity) to work. My issue is simple. I can’t get past the front door. Employers just look at the experience in years and it becomes a matter of “Let’s interview him so we can check off the EEO box.”

What’s the best way for anyone over the age of 50 to meet age discrimination head-on?

Nick’s Quick Advice

Part of what you’re experiencing — perhaps 20% — is definitely age discrimination. But the big backdrop is automated recruiting. That’s what is killing job opportunities across all age brackets. (See Why am I not getting hired?) In other words, your obvious concern is actually overshadowed by a far bigger problem.

Age discrimination is just part of it

I think 50% of rejections are about the algorithm missing the match. 30% is the personnel jockey reviewing the match and deciding this chemist can’t really do that particular job. Of course, that personnel clerk knows little if anything about chemists, chemistry, or the actual job, but since executive management doesn’t care what HR knows, you’re still screwed.

The best way to meet this problem is to avoid all automated recruiting tools that funnel you to personnel jockeys. You just have to get over the idea that “this is how hiring is done.”

It’s the people

The only solution I know is to carefully select companies you’d like to work for, figure out what problems and challenges each faces, and triangulate to find people who know people at the company. It’s all about the people who are near the job.

  • Hang out with them.
  • Talk with them, whether by phone, e-mail, discussion forums or over beers.
  • Make friends.
  • Then ask for advice and insight about that particular company.
  • Finally, request an introduction to someone in the department you want to work in.

Then repeat with each level of contacts as you get closer to a hiring manager. Never submit a resume or ask about jobs or job leads. Talk shop. This approach takes a while, but it works. Most managers prefer to hire through trusted referrals.

The Antidote: Get the manager past the grey

So you’re not looking for a job. You’re looking for people connected in some way to the company who will talk shop with you. That leads you to managers.

There’s an antidote to age discrimination. It doesn’t always work. For it to work, you must be talking with an employer whose goal is making profit. So pick employers carefully.

Your age doesn’t matter when someone tells a manager, “Hey, this person can do XYZ for you” — and XYZ is what the manager is dying to have done as soon as possible. At some level, XYZ always means making a business more profitable — always. (See Stand Out: How to be the profitable hire.)

When you show a busy manager the green, the manager looks past the grey. Here’s the catch: If this were easy, everyone would be doing it. So get to work.

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43 Comments
  1. Getting the attention of HR Recruiter has not been a problem. After initial phone interview I usually get referred to hiring manager. That is when I hit wall. One CEO actually asked, ‘Don’t you think your over-qualified.” I saw the HR Director cringe at that question.

    • “Am I over-qualified? Tell you what. Lay out a live problem you’re facing, something you’d like your new hire to tackle. I’ll show you how I’d do it better than anyone else. If I don’t, you shouldn’t hire me.”

      If the CEO balks, walk.

      • I’ve had a couple of similar experiences – one hiring manager suggested I would be better suited for his boss’ position, or higher. In another, a final “committee” interview, I had explained too much of my experience and how I handled a given situation and all three visibly displayed reactions that I interpreted as being over-qualified. Since that happened two months ago, I re-wrote my resume to dumb it down and also to try to mitigate the age.
        Even though I am willing to take a step backward, employers seem to overly concerned I’ll jump the first chance I get.

  2. Yes, saying someone is ‘overqualified’ is often a sneaky form of age discrimination.

    Seriously, when a technician is fixing your appliance are you concerned that he is ‘overqualified’ if he has been an appliance technician for over 30 years?

  3. Sometimes you have to just ask about the concern they have with that question. The question behind the question.

    I’ve been given the job discrimination question two times recently.

    I’m only in my late 40s but in the sales roll that I have chosen, people are usually much younger.

    At one interview, I got this gem
    “I have concerns about your age”

    It came out that the concern was I would get bored in that position since it was something that I was overqualified for in that person’s eyes. And this person looked a bit older than me. I think it probably was a concern they really had but the way it came out was not good. I didn’t want to work there for more than a handful of reasons so I just left and never addressed it. They knew they messed up and did Apologize.

    Recently I got this
    ” the people in your group are a bit younger in their twenties will that bother you?”

    Since I want to work there and I enjoy the personality and energy of the place, I answered truthfully that people are people and it just doesn’t matter as long as I get respect and can work productively. The young lady who is quite a bit younger than me nodded and she just seemed very happy with my answer.

    I took a course at Nova called Ace the job interview and I learned that you should address the question behind the question… the basic concern. When it comes to age discrimination or other questions that are borderline illegal. If you don’t want to work there then you have your choice of picking your battles or walking away.

    I would say you’re getting to the point of being interviewed, next time just ask what the concern is. Then rehearse your answer without it being canned about why you would be happy to work and environment with people younger than you you at you don’t care etc. whatever you come up with.

    • I understand the idea of “the question behind the question,” but I question the wisdom of trying to guess at what the employer really means. You can easily lose that game.

      My advice is to focus on the one thing that matters. Please see my comment to Richard above. There’s nothing like driving the employer to the end of the road: How you’re going to do the job he or she wants done.

      • There is another way to look at the issue. It is possible to mature out of a job. It is also possible to be “talent trapped” in a job. You mature out of a job when your experience exceeds what is required for the job. What people think is age discrimination is sometimes nothing more than saying you should be aiming higher. It’s like sitting in Chem 1 after you have taken 10 chemistry courses. Moreover, if you were an excellent employee and received annual raises very soon you will exceed the market price for that job. You become a prime candidate for layoff. Talent trapping is when you have a sought after skill but can’t get out of the job. Talent trapping is worse because you can’t change jobs because you have a sought after skill. The big risk is that industry will change and your sought after skill will no longer be needed. The bottom line is that all jobs are temporary and you have to key an eye on your compensation and the market rates for your job.

        • @Warren M: I like your discussion about maturing out of a job and being talent trapped. But there’s a different angle on maturing out. If a job seeker can’t land the job appropriate for their skill level, they still need to eat, pay the mortgage and educate the kids. They might be forced to apply for more jobs to increase their chances of getting hired — and that usually means jobs they are “over-qualified” for. That doesn’t mean they won’t do those jobs well, but it also might mean they will quit when better comes along.

          So what’s the job seeker and the prospective employer to do? Is it ever smart for an employer to make the hire anyway? I think it can be — they’re getting a great worker at a discount. What happens next is another question.

  4. Another way to disguise discrimination is ‘cultural fit’.

    It used to be that there were two main criteria for getting a job:
    Can you do the job?
    Will you do the job?

    I.e. one can be capable of doing the job but unwilling/lazy etc.

    Nowadays using cultural fit as an excuse they can hire people that are similar: similar age etc.

  5. Nick, your advice is very good here. I never interview with the CEO but I will put it to the test next time.

    (Nick to Richard)
    ““Am I over-qualified? Tell you what. Lay out a live problem you’re facing, something you’d like your new hire to tackle. I’ll show you how I’d do it better than anyone else. If I don’t, you shouldn’t hire me.”
    If the CEO balks, walk.”

  6. You know what would fix this? Right now companies are required to report their diversity in sex and races on the EEO-1 report. Many of these companies love to put out their nice web page with animated pie charts and happy images of young people showing that they have x% of whatever minority.

    Simply make them report on their age diversity. That’s really the only way for companies to make genuine age diversity a priority.

    • Yes, a simple tracking would have done it. But it’s about eight years too late to help any of us who were shoved out of the work force due to age, during the recession.

      And diversity means, diversity of 30 year olds. Nobody wants to diversify by age. Cultural fit means, you’d better like the same craft beer as the 30 year old hiring manager. At my last contract job, they all got drunk every weekend together and shot Nerf guns around the office all day!

      After completing a demanding grad program, working my own business, and doing every temp and contract job possible, with hundreds of contacts, attempts, etc. too, I am down to growing plants for spring plant sales, clipping coupons and looking forward to eventually having to sell the house and move somewhere cheap to survive.

      The whole culture needs to change. Read 55 and Faking Normal, by Lizzy White (on News Hour a few months ago, and Next Avenue on PBS site). We need a national assessment of the coming financial crisis for seniors, and need to do something about it. That will take having grown-ups in government, who actually care about the average person. It’s going to be a while.

      Good luck everyone.

      Survivor

      • I left a comment on that article referencing a similar article they did one year ago about women over 50 being kicked out of the job market, the video there ended with one woman who asked borderline-hysterically if our life span is expected to reach 100 and the plan is to kick everyone over 50 out of the workforce, just what the hell are we supposed to do for the next 50 years…I’m still wondering the answer to this question.

  7. I have found in my experience that sometimes it depends on the age of the person interviewing you. I went for a interview with a mid size company in which the interviewers were at least 10 years younger than me. I had ore than the necessary qualifications and background. I noticed when I looked at the interviewers(there were several), I could see the fear in their eyes”If we hire this guy, he will take over my job because he is more qualified than me”.

    • I remember a time in Silicon Valley when managers hired people even more skilled than the managers themselves and paid them more than the managers earned. Managers who built such teams scored big because their teams were so successful.

      That’s how the best managers rose to become executives. In the best companies.

      • Nick :)

        That’s very good point. Not counting Silicon Valley and their snowflake mentality, that doesn’t always apply to the real world(at least not in my profession). Many years ago, one of my first bosses told me that his philosophy was to hire and put together a good team because if the team looked good, he looked good. I always remembered that and tried to tried to look for managers with the same philosophy. There are a few out there.

        Unfortunately, it today’s world of profits, these types of managers are far and few between :(

      • Most companies are badly run.

  8. I was offered a temp position over the phone that fell apart as soon as I sent in my documentation showing my actual age (mid 50’s). Now they won’t reply to email. How humiliating.

    • That’s awful. Can you report them for age discrimination?

      • The EEO is largely a big joke..They will tell you that less than 5% of all age discriminations cases will go the way of the worker..

        Their philosophy is the employer is innocent and you are guilty. Most of us cannot afford the time nor the legal expense to see a successful conclusion.

        I believe Nick’s original response is the best answer to this question. It may take time and a lot of effort but I think it’s the best choice in the end.

        • I am in 100% agreement with this. I was one of the few who fought age/gender discrimination with the EEO department of a large university when I was RIF’d two years ago (along with two other 40+ employees). We got nowhere. The university EEO determined that there was no cause, even though we had tons of direct examples. Of course, the President concurred with EEO’s recommendation. Their job, as you said, is to protect the university and the man in the big position bringing in lots of money to said university (the one doing the discriminating), not the average joe worker. I considered taking it to the next level but did not have the time, resources, or mindset to keep fighting what was almost guaranteed to be a losing battle. I am now utilizing my MBA and global management experience writing resumes for a living, ironically.

          I also agree 100% with Nick’s original answer! I remember being a manager in my 30’s and I always looked up to workers older than myself as mentors who had more experience than me. What happened to that mindset?

        • The EEOC is a joke. I was once asked what my “family planning situation” was, since I was a Navy wife (hard to deny it when they assume something that’s true) and the last three she hired had gotten pregnant. I was so shocked I just mumbled “I don’t know….???” She didn’t like that answer and proceeded to ask me directly what kind of birth control I was using. I was only 23, “fresh off the farm” and just mortified. I’m guessing because she was a woman and it was an entirely female office environment, she thought that was just peachy? I got home, cried, and looked up the number for the EEOC and they said “Are you pregnant?” I said “No.” They said “Since you aren’t actually pregnant, it doesn’t matter.” (I’d like to think things have improved since 1993, but I know of no major legislation along these lines. Allow me my delusions?)

          • Sheesh. What a story. I suppose since you were not pregnant, you were not a “protected class.” Go figure. I have no idea what the rule is now about that.

  9. I may be a little old and bitter, but I have since my mid-40’s felt that unless your “diversity” program included a healthy number of white Vietnam-era Veterans, you did not have a “diversity” program. What you had was a quota-driven affirmative action program.

    Today I’d include “a healthy number of sandbox veterans with on-going PTSD” just to keep things really disparate.

  10. Most of the comments are from the perspective of the job applicant. Let me provide a perspective as a hiring manager. Most of my colleagues do not know how to interview anyone. They rely on rules of thumb, guts, or chicken entrails. Actually, they have their direct reports interview the candidate and then vote on the candidate. I have a different way to hire and I think it works. First, you are always in interview mode. Talk to prospective candidates even if you don’t have a place for them. Second, do not allow votes on candidates. The hiring manager “hires”. People are tribal and will pick people like themselves. Do not have a team where everyone is the same. Third, tell HR to send you all the resumes. If you know what you want you can go through them much faster than an HR clerk. Fourth, don’t hire anyone for whom the job is a lateral move. That’s what contractors are for. You want people for whom the job will make a difference in their lives. You want your new hires to dance to work. Fifth, interview only 5 candidates to prevent interview fatigue. Schedule interviews over a 3-4 week period and make a decision within 24 hours of the final interview. Use the phone only to confirm availability. Phone interviews are nearly worthless. Sixth, ask candidates to audition for the job by giving a simple assignment before the interview. Seventh, write to every candidate after the interview and give them your results. It is common decency plus you may want to hire the 2nd best candidate in a few months. Last, review your process and look for improvements. The problem hiring this way is that the people you hire tend to be poached by other departments. But that’s really ok because you want to bring motivated people into your organization.

  11. Here you go, a company who says “We are looking for an elite YOUNG designer…”

    https://www.linkedin.com/jobs/view/308160085/

    Hey, at least they’re honest.

    • Oh, and for another topic (ATSs)…”Talent Response’s sister company is building on our existing Applicant Tracking System (app.talentresponse.com) to develop a SaaS ATS product. Unlike other Applicant Tracking Systems, it will learn from recruiter judgments to significantly reduce recruiter time investment.” I didn’t realize it was possible to reduce recruiter time investment any further…

  12. I’ve come to the conclusion of the need to “dumb-down” the resume by eliminating titles and macro accomplishments, and focusing on tasks/skills being sought by the employer. And in the interview the same needs to occur to avoid being perceived as over-qualified. I had one interview where I provided too much detail and the hiring manager told me that I should be interviewing for his position (another interviewer said the same but for his boss’s position). I knew I was dead when that was communicated and later I got a nice decline letter that praised my accomplishments. Great!
    It seems that the job hunt process is more like cooking spaghetti than strategic planning and networking.

    • @DonEstif: When you think about it as a manager, applying for a job requires two important things. First, understanding what the employer needs. That is, where does it hurt? What needs doing? What needs fixing? What’s the deliverable?

      Second, demonstrating how you’ll do that stuff in a way that’s profitable to the employer. That is, hiring you has to pay off.

      Because HR does a lousy job of recruiting and interviewing, HR wants the kitchen sink from applicants. HR wants enormous amounts of information HR does not need, but that HR can easily use to show “We’re on it!” and “Look, here are 4 reasons NOT to hire this person.” HR’s intent is to show it’s doing something, and it’s far easier to reject a candidate than to justify interviewing them. The reason is simple. HR knows little or nothing about how to do the job, so it usually cannot judge a candidate. (When HR rejects a great candidate, no one ever knows, no one ever blames HR.)

      As you’ve surmised, less information is better — as long as you map your specific skills and abilities to the employer’s specific needs to indicate you can do the necessary work. But that puts the onus on you to select those skills that matter to this employer, and that means you must first assess what, EXACTLY, the employer needs done. They won’t tell you that in the job description. HR throws the kitchen sink in that job description.

      So before you apply, and before you decide what exactly to put on your resume, you must talk to that hiring manager. Job seekers don’t want to have to do that. They come up with umpteen excuses for avoiding it. They don’t want to go to the trouble. It’s easier to lob a resume with the kitchen sink in it at the employer — and then wait for the employer to figure it all out.

      But employers don’t figure it out. They just put a big NO on your resume and toss it.

      That’s why most job applicants never hear back from employers. When a manager wants spaghetti, a menu of everything you’ve done during your long career isn’t going to get you in the door or hired. When your boss gives you an assignment to do X, do you do A, B, C, D, E… Z? Of course not. You do the job. When you want a job, show you can do the job to win the job. Period.

      Any employer that responds with, “We need to know EVERYTHING!” is not going to hire you anyway. And even if he or she did, it’ll probably be a mistake to accept their offer.

  13. Unfortunately, I disagree with the premise that it’s only 20% age discrimination. I have been able to have some candid conversations with HR individuals and other people who would be considered gatekeepers.
    It’s age period end of story. You can have the exact skill set they need but your age is going to be an issue and this starts in your 40’s. However, if you are 45 and you can become cozy with the hiring manager you bet that’s your ‘in’.
    But the older you are the fewer opportunities you have no matter what connections you have. I’m 60 and seriously, why hire me? I’m expensive on the benefits. Good chance I actually will not fit in with the 20 somethings that are the majority of my co-workers. Actually, they will not fit in with me.
    It’s age. And it’s illegal. If any other protected group was being treated this way there would be hearings on Capitol Hill yesterday.
    Perhaps the answer is wielding the political power of millions of discriminated voting older Americans.

    • @Jim: Yah, I’m starting to adjust my estimate of how much is age discrimination. What just boggles the mind is that more experience, knowledge, acumen, and time spent working is undesirable.

      • If you are on the wrong side of 60, the perception is that the percentage of denials attributable to age discrimination is somewhere north of 100%. I don’t think the career field matters.

        This is no country for old men, or old women for that matter.

        • I know a doctor still practicing over 80. I know plenty of working accountants over 60.
          More than a few recruiters talking to me have been over 60. There is some careers where age is not as important. It used to not be as important in sales but now thanks to the brotastic Uber culture of bros running the Valley (seeping into America from here), age is this huge important factor in sales, especially inside sales.

          Behold the Glassdoor bonafide review from a company that rejected me before I even walked in the door.

          “Perhaps the most unprofessional work environment I have experienced in my career to date. Apparent that senior management does not like nor respect each other. Sales requests its leaders to “hire only hot chicks so we have something good to look at”. If you value your reputation, your career, and you have any type of moral ethics, do not even give this place a second look.”

          • @Ruth: Every time I start thinking it’s 100% age discrimination, I hear from a reader who’s 68 or 70 or 80 that’s still working, or just got a new job. Those stories are great. But are they the norm? I don’t think so, and I agree that in certain kinds of jobs employers welcome older workers.

  14. Age discrimination is real and much greater than 20%. I believe it’s not just the screeners, if you were a hiring manager in your late 30’s would you hire someone old enough to be your father with knowledge and experience greater than your own? Even if it’s imaginary, is it smart to hire someone that could easily replace you? Assuming my credentials are in order, the claims on my resume are true, and I meet all the criteria in the job description, what would trigger an automated rejection letter if it isn’t attributable to age. There are many ways to determine an applicants age without asking the direct question. Most applications demand to know the year you graduated from college. Compared to your ten year employment history the math is simple..say you graduated in 1980 (at the age of 20), and your work history goes back to 2007, how hard is it to determine that 27 years of experience are missing? So you are at least 57 years old. (27 years since college+10 year work history +27 years of no history= 57) I was the victim of an economic layoff after 19 years with a privately held company. I’ve been seeking a job in my field for 4 1/2 years. I am qualified and recently received three professional certifications in my field demonstrating I still am current, I’m healthy, I have over 1500 connections in LinkedIn, I’m involved in a professional society, and my resume has been reviewed many times and is considered very good. I have applied for over 300 positions yet have only had a handful of in-person interviews. Sending out copious numbers of resumes may result in more interviews but it doesn’t equate to getting hired. I’m very selective in the positions I apply for so, all things considered, what is preventing me from landing a job if it isn’t my age, 63. Anyone over the age of 50 will find it difficult to get a job…anyone over 60 is out of luck unless they know someone.

    • RE: over 1500 connections on StinkedIn…

      Pretty certain StinkedIn has hurt me more than helped me. Just a few weeks ago I watched as the typical scenario played out yet again: Hiring mgr from a certain org views my website (org confirmed from IP address via visitor stats), six hours later they view it again which is usually a good sign, i.e., they liked what they saw the first time to compel them to return (or perhaps tell a coworker to view)…but then comes the dreaded StinkedIn notification that “So-and-So from said company viewed your profile” (of course, according to their own profile pic they appear to be half my age) and that’s where the interest in my candidacy goes *poof*. What’s on my SI profile? Instead of a selfie of a supermodel-hot twentysomething they see a professionally-taken portrait of an average-looking middle-aged woman (oh, there are four very nice recommendations written by former clients but of course those are meaningless).

      I’m seriously considering deleting my profile picture as I’m sick of being “checked out” by hiring managers.

      • Sigh,
        Yep I think Linked can hurt. I’m the dreaded “evil old white man” who is actually called out in the media by X Presidential candidates and others who think I have 55-gallon drums of ‘privilege’ (white and/or gender) on my personal jet.
        I have a friend who changed his resume. He used just about the same experience but changed his gender and did a quick LinkedIn with a stock photo of a Hottie.
        Used quick applies on Indeed and Zip. Guess what? His phone would ring like crazy. He explained there was some kind of error but he possessed very similar qualifications as Ms. Sports Illustrated Swim Suit model. They thought is was a way for him to ‘get his foot into an interview’ and were having none of it. (He’s employed and this was an experiment.) He mixed it up some. Some of it was actually funny. Email accounts on the resume similar to ‘lovemetinder100@gmail.com’ and other errors. Keep the photo. You don’t want to work for the CheckMeOut, LLC.

        • For me they are *all* proving to be CheckMeOut, LLC (this latest incident was University of Maryland). :(

  15. In a Nova class (Caljobs) that I took, there was a lady who look to be in her late 60’s or older. She acted like she was an expert in everything and kept interrupting people and arguing with the instructor. Ironically this was all about age discrimination. Since she had been 20 years in an admin position she felt she knew how to get hired.

    She kept picking fights and was just generally not nice to be around, I thought to myself I hope I don’t come across this way to people when I interview. We already have enough strikes against us.

    She also did not take any care with her appearance whatsoever. Her outfit was literally something was in style about 20 years ago. her hair needed a comb run through it, there was no grooming as you can imagine on someone who’s older the things they should take care of like eyebrows… and she also acted like she knew more than everybody around her.

    It kind of hit me emotionally for some reason see in this play out. So I’ve been working on trying to be easy to be around. I am now trying to get comfortable wearing my contact lenses. I’m losing weight. And I’m growing my hair out more and straightening it.

    I still can’t compete in people’s eyes with 20 something year olds if the place only wants women to look cute to look at inside sales. But if they’re looking for someone who has experience and a good skill set I do get an interview.

    My problem has been honestly I get sometimes too comfortable and I have made some mistakes and some of the things I’ve said. I did a presentation where I felt like I did really well and the guy was really positive and he was in his mid-thirties.

    But the time that he would have gotten back to me to let me know if I would be hired has passed it was last Friday.

    So I’m just fighting to try to get more hireable if that’s a word.

    I also have a plan of action since I turned 50 this year…. I’m going to try to find a way to save money or get into a place where there are some viable stock options.

    Then I’ll look at a job I can do as a consultant. You have to have an incredibly sought-after skill-set to keep being hired after the age of about 35 in Silicon Valley.

    I looked young for my age as most women do and therefore I was able to skirt by this until about the age I’m at Now 49.

    My boyfriend is 61 and he is had gainful employment for over 20 years at the same job. He went took a course in human resource and he now is able to do that as well as payroll accounting.

    I honestly think once I hit the age of 55 it’s all going to stop for me and I’m going to have to get a skill set or just keep planning on working from home in some kind of capacity maybe being a recruiter or something else.

    age discrimination is very real and I don’t think it’s going to be a very solvable problem for many years.

  16. I saw age discrimination against older workers when I started out 35 years ago and knew it would eventually hit us. Except that it seems to be happening about 10 years earlier than back then. The tech sector is especially guilty. Strange thing is, according to BLS, average job tenure is just over 4 years. Little over 5 for professional occupations. Tenure for older workers is about 3 times that of younger workers. So the supposed concern about older workers being short timers seems bizarrely misplaced. Me thinks it is combo of salary discrimination and “can’t teach an old dog new tricks”.

    • If I’m reading you correctly you are saying that older workers who are IN a job are STAYING LONGER than younger workers.
      Correct. No older worker quits because once outside it’s over. Younger workers jump ship because they will get hired and boost that salary.
      Older workers are more loyal anyway.
      “Statistics is the arrow that points to a problem the statistics do not understand.”

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