Age Discrimination Isn't
Always to Blame
Q: I was part of a reduction-in-force at a well-known engineering
firm two years ago. It employed about 44,000 professionals; now it
has about 14,000. My background includes a B.S. in chemical
engineering and an M.B.A., and I am 59 years old.
I joined a Houston job search organization and worked with them
for six months, doing many things they suggested to find a new
position. Your advice for following up on ads was the same as
theirs. My results, however, have been discouraging. After
responding to an ad and waiting three weeks without word, I would
call back to discuss the status of the job and express my interest
in the position. I never received anything-not even a negative
letter in reply. My impression is that when organizations get the
idea you are over 45, nothing happens. If age discrimination isn't
the cause, what is?
A: While I will answer your question about age
discrimination, your letter broaches other issues that need to be
addressed as well.
It's good to hear that your job search group and I have given you
the same advice. Because job search is both art and science, two
reliable resources frequently offer what seems to be conflicting
information, leaving confused job seekers wondering what to do.
In your case, the advice hasn't worked. The unfortunate fact is,
regardless of expertise, only a small percentage of those using want
ads as job search tools find positions with them. Consequently,
your age probably had little bearing on your disappointing record.
As your Houston group probably told you, want ads are only one means
of finding a position. For most job seekers, using and expanding a
contact network consistently produces the best results. This is
particularly true for older job hunters. Most find it easier to
tailor discussions of their backgrounds to an employer's needs once
they've talked to him or her face-to-face.
Your letter doesn't mention job search techniques other than ads.
Where have you concentrated your time? If ads occupy more than 25%
of it, you need to redirect your efforts.
In regard to age discrimination, some companies refuse to hire
people of a certain age for a variety of logical and silly reasons,
regardless of what they claim. In fact, in working with clients for
the past 30 years, I've found every age has its detractors. Your
over-50 age group has overcome the “lack of experience” and “too
many family responsibilities” stigmas only to replace them with:
- Fewer years to work before
- Higher salary and benefit costs.
- An employer perception of the older
worker's inflexible attitude and inability to learn anything new
(this one is a myth, but many people still believe it.).
For every interviewer who avoids 50+workers, however, there's one
who recognizes the advantages of this age group. Mature
- Bring expertise ready for immediate
application. Their training time is usually much shorter than
- Offer a seasoned perspective
developed through years of handling similar situations.
- Provide stable, mellowed
personalities without being driven to prove their worth at the
expense of their colleagues.
- Come equipped with a strong work
ethic and the desire to build loyal, long-term relationships
with their new company.
- Often exhibit more flexibility,
enthusiasm, and willingness to learn than some of their younger
co-workers who “think they know everything.”
- Give clients the comfortable feeling
that their firm is run by mature, experienced, reliable people.
The trick is discovering companies that appreciate what you bring to
the table. While you may find some by answering ads and contacting
search firms, networking is your most direct route. The best
prospects include companies for whom your age is perceived as a
plus. They are:
- Large firms committed to affirmative
action. Their management has a mandate to hire qualified women,
minority, and older candidates, either because they have
government contracts requiring it or because they've found it's
good for business.
- Organizations that need a stable,
“old pro” image because their customers demand it.
- Consulting firms that are building
departments in areas where they have no in-house expertise.
Recently, one of my clients, a 55+ engineer, decided to take early
retirement when his high-tech company cut back its staff. Through
some judicious networking he joined a management consulting firm
that was expanding into health care IT systems. He is rapidly
becoming a trusted consultant in this area both because it's a field
requiring fresh thinking, and because he has years of experience
working with the type f technical people he now advises.
If your responses to ads and networking haven't been productive,
examine the positions you're pursuing. With your engineering
degree, M.B.A. and years of experience, you have much to offer
potential employers. Are you replying to job listings below your
level, assuming people your age may have to settle for less? While
this line of thinking is common, it's deadly. Employers don't want
to hire overqualified people. Perhaps interviewers have told you,
“You're overqualified,” and you thought they really meant, “You're
too old.” They probably aren't hiring because:
- They know you'll resent taking a pay
- They think you'll find little
challenge in the position.
- They worry you'll leave for the next
enticing job that comes along.
While being rejected is tough, they're probably doing you a favor by
not allowing you to take a position below your capability.
Of course, if you're tired of the performance rat race and welcome a
low stress job, then apply for the lower-level positions, in person,
if possible. Telling an employer face-to-face that you want to do a
good day's work but not compete for a higher-level slot may convince
him that you're the best person for the job after all.