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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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  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.

  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.

  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.


      • 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?

  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…”

    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 ( 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.

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