Understanding How Employers See the Age Issue
Based on his vast experience, Bud observes that many employers have a profile of a winning candidate in mind. A rejection decision may not be discrimination: In the employer’s eyes, the candidate simply may have the wrong profile for the job being filled.
So rather than refer to age bias, this chapter covers solutions to what I call age trouble, whether the trouble is due to discrimination or to a wrong profile. The following segment focuses on recognizing and overcoming issues of age trouble when it stops you in your tracks.
Showing That You Improve with Age
Age trouble shows up in many guises. In this overview, I present examples of questions that may mask common unspoken age-related concerns, followed by sample responses that show you don’t have an expired shelf-life date stamped on your forehead.
Age and job performance
A big chunk of age trouble is centered on doubts that you can do the work. Here are three masked put-offs and push-backs.
- This is stressful and demanding work. How well do you work under pressure? (Translation: You may lack the stamina to do the job.)
I work well in all situations, especially when I’m under pressure. I like having deadlines. Early on, I learned to set internal deadlines for myself in all my projects, breaking the projects into segments so I always knew how I was doing. I consistently brought my projects in on time and on budget. Internal deadlines are my specialty.
- What do you do to maintain good health? (Translation: You don’t look too healthy to me, and you may not be around long enough to justify training costs.)
Maintaining good health is a passion with me. My body mass index is similar to or better than that of most 30-year-olds. I exercise several times a week. Once a week, I play volleyball on the beach. And I watch what I eat.
- What office software do you use? Do you have a smartphone? Do you have a tablet? (Translation: You look like you do things the old-school way, and we’re into new-school thinking.)
I’m proficient with (current business software). I took a class for it on my own time last year at St. Louis Community College. My BlackBerry is with me 24/7. I make it a point to stay current with such major trends in our industry as (give one or two examples). I’m a member of the World Future Society.
Age and money
In a world impacted by business budgets, companies may see prime-timers as too pricey for value received, as the following two examples illustrate:
- What can you bring to this company? (Translation: You expect to earn more money to start than we want to pay; I can hire someone at half of what you want.)
I bring a background that includes a related degree and successful years of experience in a similar position with another company. The contacts I have already made in my previous positions will help me be productive immediately, saving costs and earning revenues. My background is an open book, showing that, by any measure, I am a bargain!
- What are your monetary expectations of this job? (Translation: You’re a seasoned worker accustomed to regular raises; our firm won’t be able to make that kind of commitment, so why am I wasting time interviewing you?)
Yes, I’ve been rewarded for my contributions to the bottom line for previous employers. Sometimes the compensation was in the form of a raise and sometimes it was a performance bonus for meeting goals. If you decide that I’m the right person for this position, I believe the monetary details won’t present a problem, and I’ll work with you on making that the case.
Age and attitude
Prime-timers may be perceived as living in another dimension of values and viewpoints or as set in their ways, as the following two questions and responses indicate:
- How would you go about doing this job? (Translation: You’re accustomed to doing things your way, which may not be our way.)
Although I’ve been quite successful in previous positions, I don’t buy the idea of resting on one’s laurels. I’m always happy to learn new and better ways to do things. Before suggesting any innovations, I would first make certain that I understand company policies and ways of working. I am very excited about this work opportunity and look forward to starting to work with you as soon as possible.
- You look as though you’ve led too accomplished a life to be returning to a career now (Translation: You don’t fit in with our young culture.)
I believe that my extensive experience in many productive settings will be of great benefit to your company because (give one or two examples). I can work effectively with people of all ages. In fact, I really like working with young people because I respect their energy and vitality and fresh look at challenges.
Outing Elephants: Address Age Issues
Have you heard the expression “If there’s an elephant in the room, introduce it?” That’s the topic of Chairman Matt Bud’s advice to members of The Financial Executives Networking Group.
Bud warns FENG prime-timers that it’s a huge mistake to avoid an age-related issue that the interviewer may be wary of bringing up directly. That’s because an age zinger becomes an elephant in a small room — impossible to overlook, an obvious truth that is being ignored. Instead, get the sensitive question out in the open where you have a fighting chance to overcome the perception that you’re too old for the job.
What follows is a part of what Bud counseled:
Among difficult questions an interviewer would like to ask you, a big one is age related: How much longer are you planning to work?
Close to being an illegal question even if the job is potentially long term or may involve a move, the interviewer may not ask, but the question is hanging out there, and until you get it out of the way, not much will happen during an interview.
If you choose not to address it, the interviewer may be trying to think up a way to politely ask you instead of listening to your very fine offerings about your many talents and how they could be applied to the job in question.
Don’t wait to be put on the defensive; that may cause you to flush red-faced or stammer. My experience has been that most folks are uncomfortable with the answers to these kinds of questions and hope they won’t come up. Wrong!
Get your story out in exactly the way you want it to be heard. When an elephant is in the room blocking the doorway to your progress, it is in the best interests of both parties to get this and other difficult questions out of the way early in the interview so that more important matters can be addressed.
The interview won’t move forward until you expose and conquer hidden hiring objections.
Overcoming the Overqualified Label
Overqualified can be code for one of five perceptions. Interviewers may use the term to indicate that you
- Have too many years’ experience
- Have too much education
- Will want to be too highly paid
- Are too rigid with demands
- Are too rusted with obsolete skills
In my observation, when you’re told you’re overqualified for a position, you can usually chalk it up to the first perception: age trouble.
But Dallas-based Tony Beshara is a job-finding whiz who disagrees that being rated as overqualified for a position is because of age trouble, and he has strong credentials to back up his opinion. Beshara runs Babich and Associates, one of the nation’s most successful job-placement firms, and he personally has connected thousands of people with employment. Beshara says:
When a candidate of any age applies for a job one step or more below the level of his or her previous position, a hiring authority is going to be concerned that the candidate will be underemployed, depart as soon as something better turns up, and leave the authority holding the blame for a bad choice. The same overqualified tag could be applied to a 35- or 40-year-old candidate, but since the predominant numbers of people going down the career ladder are in their 50s, the overqualified experience appears to be an age thing, but it’s not.
In either case, whether you’re dealing with age trouble or not, why go down with the one-word punch of being rated as “overqualified”? Come back with a strong response — or a pre-emptive strike to clear the air.
Try the following tactics when you hear the “O” word:
- Clarify the interviewer’s concerns. Find out whether the interviewer really thinks you’re overqualified — or just overaged — and whether you’ll want to earn too much money or be bored by the position.
- Enthusiastically address the interviewer’s concerns, emphasizing the positive. Explain how you can grow in this position: today a clerk, tomorrow a back-up manager.
- Show how you can use your experience to benefit the company in solving long-term problems, building profit, or assisting in other departments.
- Make sure that the interviewer understands your qualifications.
- In an office full of younger people, explain how you’re an anchor: experienced, calm, stable, reliable. You can provide continuity.
Here are six model responses to the overqualified put-off:
Overqualified? Some would say that I’m not overqualified, but fully qualified. With due respect, can you explain the problem with someone doing the job better than expected?
Fortunately, I’ve lived enough years to have developed the judgment that allows me to focus on the future. Before we speak of past years, past titles, and past salaries, can we look at my strengths and abilities and how I’ve stayed on the cutting edge of my career field, including its technology?
I hope you’re not concerned that hiring someone with my solid experience and competencies would look like age bias if, once on the job, you decided you’d made a mistake and I had to go. Can I present a creative idea? Why don’t I work on a trial basis for a month — no strings — to give you a chance to view me up close? This immediately solves your staffing problem at no risk to you. I can hit the floor running and require less supervision than a less experienced worker. When can I start?
This job is so attractive to me that I’m willing to sign a contract committing to stay for a minimum of 12 months. There’s no obligation on your part. How else can I convince you that I’m the best person for this position?
My family’s grown. And I’m no longer concerned with title and salary — I like to keep busy. A reference check will show I do my work on time and do it well as a team member. I’m sure we can agree on a salary that fits your budget. When can we make my time your time?
Salary is not my top priority. Not that I have a trust fund, but I will work for less money, will take direction from managers of any age, will continue to stay current on technology, and will not leave you in the lurch if Hollywood calls to make me a star. And I don’t insist that it’s my way or the highway.
Mastering Top Tips for Prime-Timers
As good actors and actresses grow older, they no longer have to prove their talent, but they do have to prove that they still have what it takes to play a demanding role.
Take the following A-game hints to heart, two of which are suggested by contributing experts Liz Ryan, acclaimed speaker and writer on networking, and Tony Beshara, author of Unbeatable Resumes (AMACOM, 2011).
- Experiment with statements clarifying that contributing to the employer’s goals is your first priority.
- Tell interesting true stories that illustrate your high energy, fresh enthusiasm, and willingness to compete.
- Carry yourself with a young attitude. Enter the room with pep in your step.
- Liz Ryan advises that you think of concrete examples of times when you overcame an obstacle, made a save, and had a breakthrough solution. Talk about how you deal with change. Work these things into the conversation before they’re asked. Overcome any sense that people your age can’t hustle.
- Tony Beshara suggests that you build rapport with an interviewer by mirroring his or her body language in the first few minutes. But as the interview develops, present yourself in an open, direct, and assertive manner. Keep your feet planted on the floor, keep your arms open at your sides or on the arms of a chair, and lean forward just enough to make good eye contact. If your body language isn’t appropriate, your words may never be heard.
- Don’t enter an interviewing room with the attitude that your experience should speak for itself. Merely listing your tasks doesn’t impress employers. Instead, answer the so-what question: Explain what difference you made and how your experience translates to their needs right now.
- Downplay ancient history. Unless you have a compelling reason to look way back in your career, focus your comments on the past 10 or 15 years. Talk only about your past experience that relates to the job at hand.
- To get around being seen as a tiresome know-it-all, don’t constantly say “I know.” Instead, acknowledge an interviewer’s statement with “That’s interesting” or “You make a good point” or “I see what you mean.”
- Don’t fall into the trap of thinking “uppity child” when you’re being interviewed by a younger hiring manager. Mutual respect is the right tone — even when the interviewer is young enough to be your kid.
- Use the question technique to avoid seeming to take charge of the interview: “Did I fully explain how I can make a difference in solving the problem we’ve just discussed?” or “Have I left unanswered any questions that you may have about my being the best person for this position?” When the answer indicates no reservations remain, smile, and ask, “When do I start?”
Keeping Your Career Fit
Everyone 50 and over knows that scooping up choice jobs isn’t the cinch it often was when you were younger. As a prime-timer, you can greatly improve your odds of being chosen by learning new and improved job search skills, particularly the A-game interviewing techniques that determine what comes next in your life.