Successfully Navigate Age Discrimination on the Interview

Concerned about age discrimination? No matter how young you feel inside, it is self-defeating to believe that no one is going to see that you look nearer to sixty than to thirty. This commentary is intended for that person who still has the need to compete and who intends to fight a vigorous rearguard action, doing whatever he or she can do to minimize the negative impact of age discrimination.

So let’s face some of the not-so-pleasant facts:

  • We live in a youth-oriented culture, and you and I no longer look twenty-nine.
  • The higher we climb professionally, the fewer the opportunities and the tougher the competition.
  • It is a constant struggle to do your job, have a life, and continue your professional education to avoid obsolescence.
  • We’re frequently more expensive.
  • We can be seen as know-it-alls and as potential management problems, especially to younger managers.
  • We can be seen as lethargic and without drive.

What can you do about age discrimination? Ever since Title V11 of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, it has been illegal to discriminate in employment against someone because of his or her age. It happens nevertheless. Let’s address some things we can impact, short of launching a time-consuming, and difficult-to-win lawsuit.

Some interviewers have an irrational, often immature bias against our maturity. But sometimes, we’re our own worst enemy. We cause problems for ourselves with our manner, our appearance, and with the way we handle questions. Like it or not, how you present yourself can send the interviewer a lot of invisible clues. When you are well groomed and nicely dressed, you feel confident; when you feel confident, you look younger, more vibrant. If you feel intimidated and become defensive, the interviewer will sense it. Defensive mannerisms in a job interview can be misinterpreted as someone with an attitude problem who could present an unwanted management challenge.

Come across as secure and confident, not a know-it-all
Come across as secure and confident, not a know-it-all

With age, if we are lucky, comes a relative maturity, but with it can also come a blind spot to the insecurities we once felt in youth. That younger interviewer may very well be feeling intimidated and defensive, too. Now we have two people both feeling uptight and neurotic! There are two bad places to be at a job interview: sitting on this side of the desk wondering what’s going to come next, and sitting on the other side of the desk wondering which questions to ask next. Use your maturity to be sensitive to this issue, both in dealing with your own feelings and being alert to the possible discomfort on the interviewer’s side of the desk.

Interviewers do have some legitimate concerns: Are you a management problem, and are you current with the changes that technology continually delivers to the workplace? It’s a fine line you tread; yes, you want to demonstrate your knowledge and experience as a front rank senior professional; and no, you can’t afford to come across as a know-it-all and thereby a potentially disruptive force.

In such a fast-changing business climate, coming across as a know-it-all has another potential problem: that of being seen to be rooted in yesterday rather than today. Being current is more than formal ongoing professional education classes. It is being connected to your profession. The best way to achieve and maintain this professional currency (pun intended) is to be an active member of one or more professional associations. Take out membership in at least one association and get involved with the local meetings! The activity will keep you professionally vibrant and connected.

In your interviews, strive to subtly give the impression that you are constantly learning, and looking for opportunities to learn. Not just from ongoing professional education, but from every professional encounter. If appropriate, you might add that this attitude and your breadth of experience enables you to recognize the potential in new and unusual approaches; again, be ready with an illustrative example.

Being perceived as a know-it-all raises the specter of a management problem, and manageability is an issue for every job candidate regardless of age (and never more so than with executives). You may well be asked questions about management and manageability, and how you handle input and criticism, and also how you give the same. It is important to give consideration to your approaches to these questions in advance (see the interview sections in my books), and to rehearse how you will handle them.

Another way we can avoid giving impressions of arrogance is with our attitude, in the way we answer questions. Here it helps to watch body language when you’re talking (and maintain eye contact to show you are an active listener. You should also smile and mirror the interviewer’s pleasantries and witticisms. They are efforts at friendliness, and you should respond in kind.

Illegal questions about age

As it is illegal to discriminate against a job candidate because of age, many questions about age in an interview can be considered illegal. However, that doesn’t stop them being asked, so the question is how to handle them.

You could say, “That’s an illegal question, and I’m not going to answer it.” Of course, a response like this isn’t going to get you a job offer; you sound like a troublemaker already. As I discuss throughout the interview chapters in my books and in my webcasts, the best way to answer any question is to demonstrate that you understand what is behind it, and at the same time, make a positive statement about yourself in the response.

So what is behind these questions? Most interviewers today know all about the legal issues of interviewing, so when these questions do arise, they have invariably slipped in under the fence. It usually means that the interview is going well—the interviewer is looking at you favorably, probably thinks you can do the job, and is just showing an interest in you as a human being.

Let’s step back from a job interview, just for a moment, and put ourselves at a barbecue. You meet a stranger and make small talk, “Where are you from? You married? Kids? You have grandchildren? I’m surprised, you don’t look old enough. How old are you?” Questions we have all asked at one time or another, yet if asked during a job interview every one of them could be interpreted as illegal. All too often these questions, at an interview, are just the result of someone showing interest in you as a person, like at the barbecue.

So here’s a second way we could answer the age question, “I’m fifty-six.” Okay as far as it goes, but it doesn’t do anything to advance your candidacy, so let’s drive straight on to the third and best option, where you answer the question and show that your age adds a plus to your candidacy.

“It’s interesting you should ask. I just turned fifty-six. That gives me ____ years in the profession, and ____ years doing exactly the job you are trying to fill. In those years I’ve seen mistakes made and learned from them (be ready with a couple of examples if asked). I guess the great benefit to my experience and energy level is “_________” and finish with a benefit statement about what you bring to the job. There are some people who believe (and I am one of them) that even if the question remains unspoken, it is asked nevertheless. In my coaching practice, I tell clients that they may consider answering the unspoken question themselves, if not before, then at that point when the interviewer asks: “Well, do you have any questions?” I suggest they use this same third answer, with a fresh introduction. Something along the lines of:

“Well Jack, when I sit in your chair looking at a seasoned pro, I’m considering issues like energy, manageability, and professional currency, so let me tell you something about my …” You can then proceed, as in the above example, with the benefits of your experience and maturity as they relate to the job under consideration. In other words, you show yourself to be perceptive, up-front, and to the point, and you’ll make some other pluses besides.

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