Age Discrimination: Secret Conversations Revealed!
As a 3rd-Party Recruiter, I’ve worked on hundreds of searches for job orders from all sorts of companies in a variety of industries – banking, insurance, healthcare, manufacturing, software, retail, etc. I’ve worked with executives and managers from Fortune 500’s all the way down to small start-ups and everything in between. I’ve searched for candidates that match the requirements set forth in the companies’ formal job descriptions … but I’ve also made an attempt to match the “soft qualities” defined by hiring managers that I’ve established relationships with. I’ve tried to determine the culture of the companies I worked for, and also the personality of those managers. Finding the right match goes way beyond simply reading a person’s résumé. It is more of an art form than a science – and frankly, it’s what recruiters get paid for.
We’ve all heard that it’s not kosher for a company representative to ask a candidate certain things that would reveal their age, religious affiliation, marital status, or other criteria that are protected by law. Companies are not supposed to ask a candidate on an application or in an interview for things like their date of birth, year of graduation from college, social security number, affiliations to religious organizations, political party memberships, etc. Such questions, while not actually illegal per se, could potentially open them up to serious charges of discrimination.¹
On the other hand, when a company engages with an outside (3rd-Party) recruiter, those lines often get blurred. A large part of my job involved having lengthy discussions with hiring managers about exactly what type of person they were looking for. I’ve learned to read between the lines of things that were said during those private conversations, and could usually tell when a manager wanted me to screen out candidates based on things that would be quite illegal and discriminatory. The nasty truth is this: age discrimination does, indeed, exist. It’s not something any sane company would publicly admit – but to deny that it happens is simply naïve! If a recruiter wants to make placements (i.e. make money!) then they pay attention to those factors, and follow the lead of those hiring managers. To do otherwise would be a waste of everyone’s time.
Here are some examples of off-the-record, thinly veiled things that were actually said to me by hiring managers from client companies I’ve worked with (who for obvious reasons shall remain nameless):
- “We’re looking for someone with a lot of years ahead of them, with potential for career growth.”
- “We want someone with a lot of ‘runway’ still in front of them.”
- “Send us candidates who are on the upward swing of their career arc.”
- “Most of our employees are full of youthful energy, and we want someone who will fit in.”
- “We are wary of hiring a candidate who is too senior. We’ve found that they are often ‘stuck in their ways’ and have a hard time adjusting to a new way of doing things.”
- “We are a very dynamic company. We need someone who can move quickly and roll with the changes. Senior level candidates don’t usually do well with that.”
- “We do not want to see candidates who are already ‘on the back nine’ of their career.”
- “We don’t want to invest in the training and ramp-up time for someone who is only going to be with us for a couple of years before retirement.”
- “We are not looking for a ‘seasoned’ professional.’ Those candidates are generally too expensive.”
Pretty scary, eh?! So, the question is – what should a job-seeker do with this information? Unfortunately, the answer is not easy to swallow … but it must be said anyway: accept it, and move on. Does age discrimination exist? Of course it does!!! Do all companies practice it? NO! Are there companies that actually do value, seek out and hire “seasoned” professionals? YOU BET! The bottom line is this: older candidates will probably get screened out from consideration by many companies because of their age. You might suspect it is the reason you were passed over, but you’ll never know for sure. There’s simply nothing you can do about it. The trick is to not let it get you down or dwell on it. Just continue to plug away and seek out a company where your age and level of experience is considered an asset and not a liability. It’s definitely going to be a challenge … but it is certainly not impossible.
To paraphrase one of my favorite lines from Groucho Marx (later re-quoted by Woody Allen): “I don’t want to belong to any club that wouldn’t accept people like me as a member!” If a company screens you out because of your age (or some other factor that you have no control over) then it’s probably not a place you’d feel comfortable anyway! I assume that most people want to work for a company that really wants them, and values their experience. It’s got to be a 2-way match. We all want to feel like we fit in, don’t we? Have faith … those companies are out there.
Several of the numerous comments generated by this blog have brought up the issue of whether or not it is actually against the law for a company to ask questions designed to reveal an applicant’s age. In the interest of accuracy I’ve done some further research on this issue. I learned that although they’re often called “illegal interview questions” on the web, such questions may not actually be illegal to ask per se. However, if an interviewer asks a question that has discriminatory implications and then intentionally denies you employment based on your answer to the question, he or she may have broken the law. So to avoid any risk of exposure to future litigation, it is almost always the policy of HR professionals to avoid asking such questions. It just goes to show … you can learn something new every day! [For more on this topic, read "Age Discrimination: Exposing Inconvenient Truths."]