Advice for Employers and Recruiters

Age discrimination: Over 40 and interviewing

Libby Rothberg AvatarLibby Rothberg
August 24, 2018


Let’s talk about the issues that 40+ year olds are facing in the job market today. Almost 20% of all college and university students — about four million — are over the age of 35. So why do we automatically think of a bunch of 20 something’s when we hear “recent graduates”? This is also often the image that comes to mind for talent acquisition teams and is used to discriminate against older candidates. Jo Weech, Founder and Principal Consultant at Exemplary Consultants, explains the major problems that this misconception creates.

Exemplary Consultants provides business management consulting to small businesses and start-ups. Weech got involved in the process because she truly believes that work can be better for every person on the planet. She published an article back in July that got a ton of traffic, likes, and comments. Steven Rothberg, President and Founder of College Recruiter, had a conversation with her about some of her experiences, where the article came from, and some of the lessons that came from it. The lessons learned are not only useful for job seekers, but for those in talent acquisition as well.

Diversity and inclusion policies need to represent every protect class

This past year Weech has spent much of her time speaking with people who are in the over 40 age demographic, many are in transition after the military. Weech mentions how much of an eye-opener it has been for her. “I’m shocked at the many positions that people have taken. My hope with the article was not to whine about the situation, but to really call attention to the problem. Not to call out specific companies, but to call attention to the fact that this demographic is frequently discriminated against.

Derek Zeller wrote an article about diversity panels and explained how we have made some real headway with race, gender, mobility, etc. Weech points out that we have been able to raise the bar when it comes to every Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) protected class except for age. “Nobody seems to know that it’s illegal to discriminate against a person because they are over the age of 40,” Weech emphasizes, “It’s not only illegal, but it’s being practiced regularly.”

It’s time to just say stop. No one should be discriminated against. Diversity and inclusion means every protective class, not just certain ones. Weech has heard some shocking stories from job seekers facing blatant discrimination from recruiters.

Recruiters frequently use euphemisms to disguise their discrimination. They’ll say something like, “We want somebody who’s got energy.” Age discrimination has become so practiced that sometimes recruiters don’t even bother with euphemisms. Weech says she has heard stories where recruiters will flat out say, “Sorry, you’re too old.”

How recruiters justify discriminating against the 40+ demographic

Candidates over 40 are often turned away and told “You have way more experience. You’re going to be bored in this role.” Weech remarks, “This is all just double speak for, ‘You’re way too old for this position.’”

One person told Weech that when he met the hiring manager, they simply said, “Oh, you’re old.” Then the hiring manager got up, walked out of the office, and through his resume in the trash.

It’s hard to imagine that these things actually happen anywhere, but the truth is, they happen everywhere. People are justifiably bitter because they have been discriminated against, it’s a horrible thing to go through. Nevertheless, this is where you need to rise above. Weech asks you not to share that story when you’re in your next interview.

Some people think that the only way this problem will change is if people start filing lawsuits. They think this age discrimination will only stop when it starts hitting people in the pocketbook. Weech encourages, “We’re better than that.”

We can change things by discussing them bringing education to these companies. We can change this without having to go that route.

“Employment used to be thought of as a lifetime commitment,” Rothberg explains. “Decades ago you’d be with an employer for 40 years. I’m not condoning it, but it is understandable that an employer would prefer a younger candidate who won’t retire in 10 years. But no one works for the same company for their entire career anymore.

Concrete steps to rid your workplace of age discrimination 

The first thing Weech would like to do is eradicate the myth that the more seasoned, experienced workers are more expensive. More experienced workers can do the same work in less time with greater efficacy and efficiency.

You might spend more for the experienced person, but in the end, you’ll save money. Weech mentions, “This person is not only going to be able to do the work with greater efficiency, but they’ll also be able to train and mentor the other people to that level.”

Companies need to stop just looking at dollar amounts. CFOs make decisions on how to compensate a particular role without considering attrition. A company might get some young rock star employee, but they’re going to be courted by other companies from day one. They’re not going to stay long. People in the over 40 range tend to be more loyal. Weech shares, “We grew up with different values, especially how we see work. We have a productivity and longevity in a role.”

The second thing Weech wants to get rid of is the concept of having a “token person”. She points out that when you look at company photos, often there’s one person over 40 out of 100 some employees. It’s just as bad as having a token black person or a token woman.

No demographic should be treated as a token interview. One way younger companies are getting away with not hiring older candidates is by claiming that they weren’t a “cultural fit”. Weech says, “The phrase ‘cultural fit’ is simply a nice way of saying, ‘We are going to discriminate against anyone that doesn’t look like us or think like us,’ it’s completely unacceptable.”

Of course, you don’t want to bring in someone who is going to get into arguments and destroy productivity. That, however, is not determined by age. Rothberg reminds us, “Data shows that the more diverse a workforce, the more productive it is.”

How to get back into the workforce after a 20-year break

If you are trying to get back into the workforce after 10 or 20 years, perhaps you were a stay at home parent, volunteering in your community is a great way to get new experience onto your resume. Weech recommends volunteering your skills at an organization that focuses on the type of work you’re trying to get back into. Prove that you can still do this work now.

Rothberg says, “We hear from college students all the time, ‘I don’t have any experience. Employers won’t hire me because I don’t have experience. But how do I get experience if I can’t get a job?’ They think it’s unfair, and to an extent it is.”

This situation is not as impossible as you might think. If you’re looking for a job as an accountant, go and volunteer your time to a nonprofit. Do their tax returns or balance their checkbook once a month. Now you have accounting experience. Find a neighbor or a friend who has a small business and help them out by being a cashier for three hours a week. Now you have retail experience.

Why networking is so vital to finding work

“Networking is about trying to find ways of helping other people and offering your help to them,” says Rothberg, “Karma can be a bitch, but karma can also be a wonderful thing.”

Seventy-two percent of all jobs are filled by networking and referrals. Start by networking and befriending people who work at the place you’re volunteering.

Weech states, “The point is not to make friends so they can get you a job. The point is to learn from people who are in the current workforce. You can then get you up to date on how things are working right now.”

You can’t command respect, respect comes from being respectable. Prove you have the humility to be able to learn from someone who’s only been doing this work for one year. If you can do that, then you will be viable.

“The most important thing you need to bring to the table is collaboration, cooperation, and respect for your coworkers,” Weech says, “Even when they’re treating you in a way that you find to be demeaning. It’s really important to not treat others the way you have been treated.”

Just because something has happened to you, it doesn’t give you a reason to do the same to someone else. Be the better person. Walk with humility, gentleness, and eagerness to learn about how things are being done.

When you help other people, it tends to come back to you, maybe not from that same person, but someone in their network. Do good, be kind. You cannot go wrong with practicing that every single day and with every interaction.

How to embrace technology and advancement to stay relevant

At a career fair, Weech reviewed resumes for hundreds of people in the 50 plus age group. It broke her heart to see so many people who had not kept up with technology. They’re not using social media and still have AOL accounts.

If you are in that category and have avoided technology out of fear, pay someone in your neighborhood to teach you. Become more educated by taking online courses. You don’t have to go to an expensive school either, you can learn things for free. YouTube is a phenomenal resource to learn how to do anything.

Rothberg explains, “YouTube is probably the world’s largest school. If you ever wanted to figure out how to do something, just go over to YouTube and type it in. There are probably like 48 geeks who have posted a video on exactly that, no matter what it is.”

Don’t say it’s too late. You can start today. Weech encourages you to tell yourself, “Today is the day that I am going to enter into this new era.”

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